10 Things Everyone Should Know about Adolescent Girls and HIV on World AIDS Day 

Authored by Jennifer Martin 

Adolescent girls who are transitioning into adulthood are particularly vulnerable to HIV/AIDS.  Around the world there is a lack of adequate and youth-friendly sexual health and HIV services that respond to the specific needs of adolescent girls and young women.  Gender discrimination, gender-based violence, and poor educational opportunities further increase girls’ potential exposure to HIV.

Despite their increased vulnerability, there is a lack of global data on modes, timing, and prevalence of HIV infection among adolescent girls. Importantly, available data on HIV positive children fails to differentiate between those children who contracted HIV through mother-to-child transmission, and those who were infected through sexual activity.  More information is needed to identify how, and at what age, adolescent girls are becoming infected with HIV.  This would allow for targeted, and therefore more effective, HIV prevention programming and interventions that appreciate girls’ unique needs, social positioning, and development.

Here are ten things that we do know about girls’ vulnerability to HIV/AIDS based on information taken from Girls Discovered, a comprehensive source of data and maps on the status of adolescent girls worldwide.

1. Every 90 seconds, HIV is transmitted to a girl or young woman (15-24).  This means that at least 340,000 new HIV infections occur among girls and young women (10-24) each year.

2. There are 3 million girls and young women (15-24) living with HIV in the world.  Of the 35 million people living with HIV/AIDS worldwide, an estimated 21% are girls and young women aged 15-24.

3. Adolescent girls are more vulnerable to HIV infection than boys.  According to UNAIDS, infection rates in girls and young women (15-24) are twice as high as in boys and young men, and account for 22% of all new HIV infections.  In 2013, girls and young women accounted for 60%of new HIV infections in young people. In Sub-Saharan Africa girls and young women make up 72% of all young people living with HIV.

4. Girls are less able to negotiate condom use, putting them at a greater risk of contracting HIV.  According to the 2014 Human Development Report, in Kiribati, Madagascar and Mali less than 8% of girls aged 15-24 used a condom every time they had sex with multiple partners.  Not only do girls often face difficulty in acquiring condoms, but they often cannot insist on condom use with their sexual partner, placing them at risk of contracting HIV.

5. Gender-based violence makes it harder for adolescent girls to protect themselves against HIV infection.  According to UNAIDS, young women who experience intimate partner violence are up to 50% more likely to contract HIV than those that do not.  In addition, girls in rural South Africa who experienced sexual abuse in childhood had a 66% greater risk of HIV infection compared to young women who had not been abused.

6. Limited access to information aggravates the threat of HIV for adolescent girls.  According to UNAIDS, in sub-Saharan Africa, only 26% of adolescent girls have accurate knowledge about HIV transmission, compared with 36% of adolescent boys.

7. Adolescent girls are often not able to access HIV testing.  The proportion of young people who have received an HIV test has increased globally since 2000.  Yet, in sub-Saharan Africa, the region most affected by the AIDS epidemic, only 15% of adolescent girls and young women aged 15–24 are aware of their HIV status.

8. Gender discrimination prevents girls from accessing HIV treatment.  According to Demographic and Health Surveys, in Mali, Nigeria and Burkina Faso, less than 20% of girls say they have the final say on their own health care.  This limits their ability to protect themselves against HIV, particularly as they transition into adulthood.

9. Early, forced, and child marriage increase the risk of HIV infection.  In the last decade, an estimated 58 million girls were married before the age of eighteen. According to UN Women child brides are often unable to effectively negotiate safer sex, even in response to knowledge about HIV, leaving them vulnerable to infection.  In addition, the Population Council identified unequal power differentials, a substantial age gap between husband and wife, and forced initiation into sexual activity as factors that increase married girls’ vulnerability to HIV infection.

10. Increasing educational parity is crucial to improving HIV outcomes for girls.  According to the UNFPA, women that have achieved post-primary education are five times more likely than illiterate women to understand HIV.  In addition, illiterate women are four times more likely to believe that it is not possible to prevent HIV.


The author, Jennifer Martin, is a coordinator of the Girls Discovered project – a partnership between Maplecroft, the United Nations Foundation, and the Nike Foundation.