ONLY ten African countries, out of 54, have signed a treaty seeking to make education free for all up to secondary school by 2025, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS) said on Monday.
Nigeria and 43 other nations on the continent are yet to adopt the decision.
Countries that have signed the treaty are Benin, Cameroon, Eswatini, Gabon, Gambia, Lesotho, Malawi, Sierra Leone, South Africa and Uganda.
The initiative, Education Plus, is jointly led by UNAIDS, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) and the UN Women.
Education Plus is a high-profile, high-level political advocacy drive to accelerate actions and investments to prevent HIV, centred on empowering adolescent girls and young women and achieving gender equality in Sub-Saharan Africa — with secondary education as the strategic entry point.
The programme calls for free and quality secondary education for all girls and boys in Sub-Saharan Africa by 2025; universal access to comprehensive sexuality education; fulfilment of sexual and reproductive health and rights; freedom from gender-based and sexual violence; school-to-work transitions, and economic security and empowerment.
Though Nigeria offers free and compulsory education for its children, the programme terminates at Basic Nine, three years before the end of secondary school.
Basic Nine school in the country is the exit point for primary and junior secondary education.
At its launch during the Africa Union summit in Lusaka, Zambia, UNAIDS said the continent’s leaders in attendance pledged to support the initiative.
Speaking on the need for the initiative, UNAIDS said nearly 4200 adolescent girls and young women in sub-Saharan Africa acquire HIV weekly.
The agency said in 2020, six in seven adolescents aged between 15—19 years old acquiring HIV in the region were girls.
It added: “More than 23000 young women died from AIDS-related illnesses in 2020, making it the second leading cause of death among women aged 15—29 after maternal mortality in sub-Saharan Africa.
“Keeping girls in secondary school and providing them with life skills, training, and employment opportunities is key to ending the AIDS pandemic in Africa. Research shows that ensuring that girls complete secondary education reduces their risk of acquiring HIV by up to half and that combining this with a package of services and rights for girls’ empowerment reduces their risk further still.”
Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema, who hosted the summit, said his government was committed to providing free primary and secondary education for all.
Hichilema, whose government engaged 30,000 new teachers last week, said education is “the greatest equalizer”, adding that with appropriate education, everyone has an opportunity to explore their full potential and be able to participate in the development process.
The President of Senegal and current chair of the African Union, Macky Sall, launched the initiative flanked by three other presidents and the Chairperson of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat.
In his remarks, UNAIDS Executive Director, Winnie Byanyima, said the continent was making progress, but it must be “fast enough” with its efforts.
“We need to urgently address the gender inequalities that still plague the continent, with devastating impacts on poor girls and young women. We don’t have a minute to wait.
“Working together, we can all end discriminatory laws and harmful social norms so that our girls are healthy, educated and empowered and can lead our continent, Africa, forward,” Byanyima said.