When it comes to the fight against HIV/AIDS, women around the world have faced a particularly formidable adversary. AIDS is the second leading cause of death among adolescents globally, and in sub-Saharan Africa it has become the number one cause of death among young people. In particular, it is adolescent girls who are most affected. A UNAIDS report on South Africa found that in 2013 more than 860 girls became infected with HIV every week, compared to 170 boys. It's a stark comparison and one that shines a light on the undeniable hardship suffered by the families, communities and entire countries who lose women to this treatable, preventable disease. Statistics help quantify the devastation that the disease has had on women -- and its impact on the economy -- but there are few facts that demonstrate the economic growth to be gained from empowering women. Now is the time to make this inestimable possibility into a measurable reality.
This week we're helping take a small step toward that reality through a program that aims to help empower African women through mentoring, with a special focus on those who are at the frontlines of the fight against HIV/AIDS. Vital Voices, in partnership with Bank of America and (RED), is bringing together African women leaders who are actively working to fight HIV/AIDS, with established, global women executives to share experience and guidance with the aim accelerating professional development.
Women have enormous potential to improve the economic future of Africa if they gain sustainable employment, and entrepreneurship offers a substantial opportunity for them to achieve greater economic stability. Indeed recent events and conversations have pushed women to the top of the Post-2015 Development Agenda, with The African Union Summit in January declaring 2015 the "Year of Women's Empowerment," and earlier this week, leaders from around the world recognized International Women's Day by gathering for the 59th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women.
Mentoring plays a role in helping extend this ongoing conversation and enables women to reach their full potential. Women like mentee, Kogie Govender, whose strategic vision has enabled over 15,000 community members in rural South Africa to receive training in HIV/AIDS related courses in 2014 alone. Through her participation in this unique mentoring program, Kogie is gaining access to tools and support that can help her achieve even greater impact.
We also were inspired by Lebogang Ramafoko, CEO of Soul City Institute, who surprised everyone with the platform she used to foster transformational change in five communities in South Africa: reality television. Through this and other outlets, Lebo (or, as she is affectionately known in the region, "Agony Aunt") has become the voice of reason on issues facing women and young girls in South Africa. Soon, Lebo will be returning to the television screen as a co-host of an intergenerational talk show that aims to raise some of the structural drivers of HIV, such as inequality and gender based violence.
Lastly, Agnes Atim Apea, Founder and CEO of Hope Co-Ops, reminded everyone that entrepreneurs must be driven not only by making money -- but also by a strong passion to solve an existing social problem. Agnes shared that being almost obsessed with her social enterprise has kept her strong and focused during the toughest of times and is part of what she describes as her entrepreneurial journey.
We must all strive for a new representation of African women in the coming years. And keep a close eye on ensuring the world is not only focusing on women and girls in a global strategy to fight AIDS, but we must also seek ways to empower women, providing opportunities and access to tools to engender women leadership and economic progress.
This article originally appeared in the Huffington Post publication. Content was produced by outside parties not affiliated with Bank of America. Opinions or ideas expressed are not necessarily those of Bank of America, Merrill Lynch Wealth Management, U.S. Trust or Bank of America Merrill Lynch, nor do they reflect their views or endorsement. These materials are for informational purposes only. Bank of America, Merrill Lynch Wealth Management, U.S. Trust and Bank of America Merrill Lynch do not assume liability for any loss or damage resulting from anyone's reliance on the information provided.