Empowering girls to end HIV

It’s time for young women across the world to take back their decision-making power. Whether that means choosing to have sex or simply  accessing the sexual and reproductive healthcare they need. Without discrimination.

When the International HIV/AIDS Alliance (now Frontline AIDScame to us in the autumn of 2017, the epidemic they’d been addressing for more than two decades had evolved. The people who’d become increasingly at risk of getting HIV were the among the world’s most vulnerable and marginalised. In some parts, that meant simply being female.

The facts were alarming. In east and southern Africa, UNAIDS reported 4,500 new HIV infections among young women every week. Twice as many as in young men — but why? One reason is that young women who were subject to violence were much more likely to get HIV.

Failed by society

Many of these girls and women were being pressured into unprotected sex, forced into marriages (often in childhood), raped in their own communities and denied or shamed out of sexual and reproductive health services. 

The problem was systemic and young women were being failed by a society that could otherwise protect them. 

Not all contexts were clear-cut. Some young women, for instance, would become entangled in transactional relationships with promiscuous older men who promised ‘empowerment’ through money and mobile phones.

This complex picture was connected by one fundamental issue: gender inequality. One that needed to be put at the heart of the HIV agenda. 

Just six weeks away, World AIDS Day and the International Conference on AIDS and STIs in Africa would provide a timely platform for the Alliance to do just that. The link between gender-based violence and the rise in HIV among girls and young women in sub-Saharan Africa would carry a deeper significance against World AIDS Day’s thematic backdrop of ‘the right to health’.

It was high time for these girls and women to claim back their right to choose what happens to their own bodies. 

Putting girls and women first

We worked with the Alliance team to create a bold, outspoken campaign identity to galvanise support among young audiences in Africa and the UK.

We knew it’d be futile to speak for young women. To support their self-empowerment, we had to create a platform on which they could speak for themselves. They would be the ones to make governments and policymakers sit up and listen, and change the laws that were failing them. They would remind leaders of their commitment to stopping violence against girls and women across the globe. They would ask how sustainable development goal #5 could protect them. 

So, naturally we built the campaign around amplifying young women’s voices, and encouraged their communities to rally around them. We targeted activists, young groups, local journalists, volunteers, NGOs as well as survivors and witnesses on the frontline. Girls, boys, women and men.

Considering our HIV prevention angle, it was important to show young African male voices echoing those of their female peers. They would help to counter toxic masculine behaviour and set a positive example for others.

Several challenges were clear to us as we researched and explored the opportunities. As well as having a small budget and relatively short time-frame, we had to cut through a crowded landscape. And not just on World AIDS Day. Many non-charitable organisations were moving into the women’s rights space, hoping to gain a slice of the mounting attention around this increasingly hot topic. 

We were also conscious of cultural sensitivities around what could be viewed as controversial topics in Africa. Of course, the tone needed to be respectful; but it also needed to be bold and outspoken.

Truth and action

For the campaign to work, it was vital to strike a balance between truth and action: the stark reality and the change we wanted to see. Most of all, we needed to portray young women not as victims but as resilient and defiant human beings. We focused on the simple fact that when girls and women choose what happens to their bodies, they’re much less likely to get HIV.

Our message was unequivocally clear: the world can’t end AIDS without ending gender inequality. And so we turned this mandate into a positive, succinct call-to-action: empower girls, end the HIV epidemic.

The Alliance already had a name for the campaign. READY to Decide would fuse together and support the efforts of two existing and pertinent global movements. 

The first was the Alliance’s READY (resilient and empowered adolescents and young people), which encourages young Africans to lead on designing health programmes intended for them. The second was She Decides, which campaigns for the sexual and reproductive rights of girls and women worldwide.

The stories behind the statistics

With real voices being a crucial element of the work, we were keen to unearth the stories behind the statistics. The Alliance team helped to gather first-hand accounts from people affected by what was going on. We turned these into succinct, spirited and at times provocative statements. Through which, young people could tell it how it is and demand change within their countries, communities and even families.

We emblazoned T-shirts and banners with these statements, and created social-media and website content around them. That way, the Alliance could take those young voices with them to their events in Africa.

For the principle creative work, we turned READY to Decide into an autonomous assertion — ‘When I’m/she’s/they’re ready to decide’  demonstrating that young women were reclaiming their power. They were demanding, not asking for, equality and freedom.

This would reframe their life experiences; the basic rights they were being denied. For example, the right to choose when and with whom to have sex, a relationship, a marriage or a baby. We needed authentic visual references to bring this idea to life. Images that would empathically complement the experiences of those brave enough to speak up. We managed to secure some remarkable reportage images from a National Geographic photographer. They showed scenes of girls in potentially vulnerable situations where their rights might’ve been tested.

We overlaid these pictures with the words sex, marriage, relationships and pregnancy, lit up in a playfully provocative neon typography that resonated with youth culture. But we intended the weight of the words to jar. These were adult concepts imposed upon girls as young as 10 or 12-years-old.

We followed those words, as if in sharp riposte, with the more seriously expressed ‘When I’m ready to decide’. A solemn reminder to the world that it was time for her to decide. For her human rights to be honoured. For her voice to be heard.

These graphics formed impactful, shareable social-media content giving the Alliance the edge they needed.

Just as they’d joined the dots between the issues, the team had planned to coordinate the campaign around their key events, which also included International Human Rights Day and 16 Days of Activism Against Violence Against Women. They wanted to spark as much participation as possible.

So, we created a dedicated landing page to provide information and encourage young people to get involved and join the READY movement. 

UN Women leader with the campaign

A life of its own

The READY to Decide landing page turned out to be the Alliance’s most visited webpage of the year. Meanwhile on Facebook and Twitter, the campaign generated some of the highest engagement the Alliance had seen.

I think it’s testimony to how well Neo conceptualised the initial idea that we have a campaign that can be sustained beyond its initial lifespan. That was always my hope. But I think the level of buy-in has been a genuine surprise.

As the team had hoped, the campaign took on a life of its own. It continued through the HIC calendar, building support at events such as the global She Decides Champions and the UN Commission of the Status of Women. And collecting new advocates along the way, including Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the executive director of UN Women.

“The initial results were really positive and the campaign will continue to inform our influence work around Global Goal/SDG #5 throughout the year and beyond,” said the Alliance’s senior communications advisor Lola Abayomi, a few months after launch.

“I think it’s testimony to how well Neo conceptualised the initial idea that we have a campaign that can be sustained beyond its initial lifespan, which was always my hope. But I think the level of buy-in has been a genuine surprise.”

Two years on, READY to Decide still has a presence. When a campaign evolves into a movement of its own, you know you’ve done something right.