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Redefining the norm and challenging the status quo: Young women rearranging the discussion table

Blog by Maximina Jokonya

“The voices of young women matter. Any HIV
prevention conference and other decision making platform has a duty and an
obligation to ensure our presence, our inclusion and our leadership”, said
Audrey Nosenga, a young woman who was attending the HIV R4P conference as part
of the Young Women’s Leadership Initiative by ATHENA.

According to,  an estimated 740,000 women were living with
HIV in Zimbabwe in 2017. Among young women, HIV prevalence increases with age,
with 2.7% of women aged 15-17 living with HIV, increasing to 13.9% of women age
23-24.  This data shows why it is
important that we  involve young women
and make sure that their voices, views and priorities are included and their
needs centered. Young women should have access to spaces and opportunities to share
their stories and priorities  on how they
think the world can end HIV.

As young women, our main ask is for those who
are involved in HIV programming and implementation, including researchers, to
see the importance of our presence at the discussion table. During the HIV R4P
conference, we heard a lot about young women but too little from young women.
It is of paramount importance to include the faces behind the statistics,
graphs and colorful pie charts. If we are to reach the 90/90/90 targets and
the goal of ending AIDS by 2030, we need to create spaces for young women.

During the HIV R4P conference, the Young Women’s
Leadership Initiative took over the Advocates’ Corner to make our voices heard
to the researchers, policy and decision makers of the conference. We did this
through raising the Visible Panty Line, which symbolises the things that we as
women are told to keep hidden, to be quiet about and to be ashamed of. The
hotel which was chosen to host this HIV prevention conference forced us to take
the panty line down; telling us that our advocacy was offensive. Therefore, we
are saying: if young women’s voices are not heard and their views prioritised,
then for whom are we coming up with these great innovations, studies and HIV

All we are saying is, we don’t want any high
position, nor are interested in a seat at the table, what we want is to
redefine the norm and challenge the status quo. We want to change the same
cloth and utensils we have been seeing on the table with new and more choices
that are meant for us. When we are planning for conferences, let’s have spaces
for young women to share their ideas, opportunities to speak on panels,
sessions and poster presentations. It is now the time to move away from the data
or statistics-centered conference approach to a more conversational, human
centered approach!  The voices and
experiences and leadership of young women is necessary if we are to end this
epidemic and fulfill the rights, choices and agency of everyone living with or
vulnerable to acquiring HIV.