Why I’m fighting for the Global Fund
My name is Gracious Lekgoathi, and I’m a 21-year-old student. I study civil engineering at the University of Johannesburg, but my heart and my soul lie in being an advocate for sexual and reproductive health rights for young women and adolescent girls across South Africa.
I didn’t always feel that way. Talking about sex and HIV used to make me really uncomfortable. But by the end of the day today, 850 more girls and women will have contracted HIV. I realized we all have to be comfortable talking about these issues, or a disease that’s preventable will keep spreading.
As part of my advocacy work with the organization HER Voice, I meet with adolescent girls and young women and listen to their stories—things they wouldn’t talk about with their parents. Two weeks ago, I met with women at my university. One shared, “I would rather die than to go access my sexual reproductive health or HIV services at a hospital or clinic because I am going to be stigmatized.”
If young women feel too ashamed to go to a clinic for HIV services, that’s a problem. We need safe spaces so we can get what we need without facing judgment or discrimination.
Achieving a more gender-equal world
The day after I met with the women at my university, I sat at a table with leaders from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, including its advocacy head, Linda Mafu, and shared my classmates’ feedback. Right now, countries around the world are making pledges to support the Global Fund for the next three years. The stories I shared at that table will help inform how that money is spent.
If the Global Fund can help young women access HIV services without shame, fewer young women will be sick, which means they can go to school, which means we’ll increase the leadership of women and girls. Supporting the Global Fund means achieving a more gender-equal world.
Fighting for sexual and reproductive health runs in my family. My grandmother was a community health worker. She used to come to our school and talk with the girls about contraceptives. And if they felt unsafe being seen going to the clinic, she would have condoms on the counter in our kitchen and tell them, “Come to my home.”
I don’t leave condoms on my counter. Instead, I create safe spaces for young women and adolescent girls to make their voices heard, often by connecting on WhatsApp and video chat. My generation feels safer on our phones than other places. Through these platforms, we find the confidence and the courage to embrace our identities and tell our stories.
I like to say that my generation is too Gen Z to die from HIV/AIDS. We are always on our phones. Information about prevention and treatment is very accessible to us. We have all of these tools our mothers and grandmothers didn’t have.
But young people need our governments to commit. Countries and international organizations need to fully replenish the Global Fund so we all can continue to access the services we need. From 2010 to 2020, HIV infections among young women and girls in South Africa dropped by 48%. I believe this would not have been possible without the Global Fund. We need to keep this momentum going so girls and women—people like my grandmother, Linda Mafu, and me—can continue to lead.