Brenda* has high hopes of becoming an officer in the military one day, but the truth is, she’s already been to battle. As a 16-year-old girl in the Zomba District of Malawi, just her presence in school is a hard-won victory.
According to a report by UNESCO, more than 9 million girls across sub-Saharan Africa will never set foot inside a classroom. As a victim of sexual assault who became a mother at 14, Brenda could have easily been among them.
Instead, she became connected to the PCI Malawi DREAMS Project, a global initiative of the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). The goal of DREAMS is to help girls develop into Determined, Resilient, Empowered, AIDS-free, Mentored and Safe women.
“The program is important to young women in Malawi, because it provides adolescent girls with their own safe space to discuss issues that affect them, join hands with peers and speak against violence, and access resources to continue with their education,” said Ruth Kundecha, DREAMS Coordinator for PCI Malawi.
Malawi is one of 10 DREAMS countries that account for more than half of all the new HIV infections that occurred among adolescent girls and young women globally in 2015. Poverty, gender inequality, discriminatory cultural norms, sexual violence and a lack of education all contribute to girls’ vulnerability to HIV.
Initially after giving birth, Brenda was forced to drop out of school to care for her baby. About a year passed before she learned about DREAMS and recognized the benefits of joining the program. In addition to weekly mentorship sessions, DREAMS participants are linked to health care and social services such as education support and post-violence counseling. Now the 16-year-old is back in school and in standard 6 to build a better life for herself and her child.
“[DREAMS] has helped her stand up against the opposition she is facing in her community,” Kundecha said. “She is able to receive support from the mentorship group as well as her mentor, and this encourages her to fight on.”
To date, PCI Malawi has reached 3,627 adolescent girls in and out-of-school through the DREAMS mentorship program. The project has also linked 765 girls to HIV testing and counseling; more than 300 to screening and treatment for sexually transmitted infections; 79 to family planning services; and 68 to screenings for cervical cancer.