Ntokozo Zakwe grew up in a South African community where girls seldom dreamed of a safe, healthy and hopeful future, or a life free of HIV/AIDS.
“There were no mentors or role models. There was poverty, rape and violence,” recalled Zakwe. “All these factors left us vulnerable to HIV.”
Today Zakwe is full of hope as she mentors a new generation of girls in her community to achieve their full potential, teaching them how to avoid pregnancy, get HIV tested and remain HIV free.
Zakwe is an ambassador for a U.S.-backed initiative known as DREAMS, an acronym for the type of women the program hopes to develop: determined, resilient, empowered, AIDS-free, mentored and safe. The initiative is supported by the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and U.S. and international nongovernmental organizations.
Girls and young women account for 74% of new HIV infections among adolescents in sub-Saharan Africa. Since the DREAMS initiative began in 2015, diagnoses of new HIV infections among girls and young women have declined in all areas where the program works, according to 2020 statistics. New infections have dropped more than 25% in 96% of those regions, and more than 40% in nearly two-thirds of regions where DREAMS is implemented.
Helping girls achieve their full potential
Manjolina Wendson, from Tanzania, has convinced at least 220 adolescent girls, young women and their partners to be tested for HIV in her community. “As a DREAMS ambassador,” she said, “I strive to live as a role model so that other adolescent girls and young women can learn from me … I encourage them to not lose hope, despite many challenges they might be going through.”
While the DREAMS initiative focuses on typical health care issues, like testing for HIV and methods to prevent the spread of HIV, it also targets the indirect causes that contribute to girls’ vulnerability to HIV, including poverty, social isolation, gender-based violence, inadequate schooling and gender bias.
Wendson credited the entrepreneurship skills she learned through DREAMS for making her financially independent and putting her in a position to support her family. “I am now busy designing dyed clothes, [and] developing liquid and bar soaps, which I sell and get money [for],” she said. Wendson organized five DREAMS groups in her community to teach soap-making and textile-dyeing skills to girls and young women.
Agnelia Vasco Figueredo, a DREAMS ambassador from Mozambique, said she emphasizes girls’ rights: “I feel the need to fight for the other girls that have no voice. I know that I am now a source of inspiration for other girls.” She teaches girls how to file legal complaints in cases of gender-based violence.
“My work is quite important because it helps the other girls to make responsible, conscious choices to have a healthy life and have a bright future,” Figueredo said.
An earlier version of this story was published December 3, 2018.