“I was so encouraged,” said Monica Rajab, upon learning that she could receive support to return to school after becoming a first-time mother at age 17. Monica – an orphan living with her grandparents – was in desperate need of such encouragement. Like many young girls in Malawi, Monica had dealt with many hardships at a very young age – from the loss of her parents and dropping out of school to becoming pregnant at an early age.
The Go Girls! program, a three-year U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) special initiative developed to address young girls’ vulnerabilities to HIV, helped Monica overcome the sizable obstacles to realizing her dreams and returning to school. “People were laughing at me when I said I wanted to go back to school when I had a child,” said Monica, speaking through a translator in her native language of Chichewa, “but with the skills I had acquired and the support of Go Girls!, I went back to school.”
Monica – speaking at the Go Girls! Going Forward! close-out event in Lilongwe, Malawi – represents how young women are disproportionately affected by the HIV epidemic throughout Southern Africa. Many young women marry at an early age, drop out of school, and engage in risky sexual behaviors—including through force and coercion-- that lead to the highest rates of HIV infection in Malawi.
Go Girls! worked to reverse this disturbing trend by focusing on reducing HIV infections in girls aged 10 to 17 years old. They did this by focusing on the contextual factors which place adolescent girls at risk: looking at the broader community and environment, and how these interact with individual risk factors to create vulnerability. Reaching out to over 4,000 community members, Go Girls! spread its message – building strong communities to support strong girls – in four different communities in the Thyolo District of Malawi. Part of a three-country program also implemented in neighboring Mozambique and Botswana, Go Girls! touched the lives of over 1,500 parents, teachers, in- and out-of school youth and community leaders.
The Go Girls! support of Monica showcases the wide-ranging community reach of the program. Local implementing partner Thyolo Active Youth Organization (TAYO) and the Go Girls! community facilitating group convinced Monica’s grandparents to allow her to return to school, and to help her pay for her school fees.
Akimu Tebulo, the chairperson of Bvumbwe’s Go Girls! Facilitating Group, and his fellow facilitating group members worked to identify the causes of girls’ vulnerability in their community, building partnerships with the police and religious, political and community leaders like village heads “to protect the girl child.” Among the places that community members identified as unsafe for girls, local bars stood out – some bar owners were hiring girls too young to frequent bars, much less work there.
“We had the picture that this might be our own daughter,” said Tebulo of the girls working at local bars. This vision inspired Tebulo and his fellow community members to work with the police to close a particularly problematic bar, a key step in ending this harmful practice in their community. Inspired by this success, Tebulo and his community members are continuing the work of the Go Girls! program in Bvumbwe. In fact, GoGirls! supported the development of a variety of programmatic tools and manuals that partners like Tebulo can continue to use, and others in neighboring communities can adopt.
In addition to powerful stories like these, Go Girls! included an evaluation that sheds light on the potential for broad-reaching effects of multi-level programs like Go Girls! Findings show that girls whose parents participated in the adult-child communication program reported significantly improved relationships with their mothers and fathers, and school personnel reported increased understanding of the school code of conduct that promotes schools as safe spaces for girls and boys. Girls like Monica who participated in the life skills program reported feeling safer in school relative to girls not in the program. The evaluation component also supported the development of both a Vulnerable Girls Index (VGI) and a Supportive Communities Index (SCI), which can be tracked over time to assess changes in vulnerability and community support to girls.
Yet, in the words of John Hopkins University Center for Communication Go Girls! Program Director Carol Underwood: “Stories speak, but numbers count.” In Sub-Saharan Africa, nearly 3.3 million youth are living with HIV/AIDS. Young women like Monica are most vulnerable – young women comprise 57 percent of all young people with HIV, and 76 percent of cases among young people in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Someday, Monica may be in the position to help turn the tide of the epidemic in her community. Monica told the more than 40 government, donor and civil society representatives attending the Go Girls! Going Forward! event that she wants to continue with her education and become a nurse: “This decision is final; whatever problems I meet, I will go ahead until I realize my dream.”
Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS). 2007 AIDS Epidemic Update. Geneva, Switzerland: UNAIDS, 2007.)
Joint United Nations Programme on HIV AIDS (UNAIDS). 2008 Report on the Global AIDS Epidemic, Geneva, Switzerland: UNAIDS, 2008.
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