Overcoming Adversity to Survive and Thrive: Dana's Story
Dana*, an 11-year-old living in Kenya with her widowed mother and four siblings, was 9 years old and home alone when a male neighbor lured her into his house by promising her a sugary treat. He then locked the door and covered her mouth to muffle her screams as he sexually assaulted her. He also threatened to further harm her and her family if she told anyone what had happened.
Dana suffered four days of excruciating pain from the rape before finally finding the courage to tell her mother, who took her to a hospital and the police. Unfortunately, the 72-hour deadline for Dana to receive post-exposure prophylaxis – medication to reduce her chance of HIV transmission after unprotected sex – had passed, and she tested positive for HIV.
Around the world, stories like Dana’s are far too common. Data show that for as many as one in three girls, their first sexual experience is forced or coerced, which also places them at an elevated risk for HIV infection. Globally, more than 360,000 girls and young women are newly infected with HIV every year – nearly 1,000 every day.
The U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) is committed to changing these statistics, especially with our DREAMS partnership that helps girls develop into Determined, Resilient, Empowered, AIDS-free, Mentored, and Safe women. The U.S. government has invested more than $750 million in DREAMS to reach over 2.5 million adolescent girls and young women with services and support.
These efforts are having an impact. In the 10 original DREAMS-supported countries, nearly two-thirds of the highest-HIV-burden communities achieved a 25 to 40 percent or greater reduction in new HIV diagnoses among young women since 2015, with new infections declining in almost all DREAMS intervention districts. Recently, five more PEPFAR-supported countries began implementing DREAMS programming.
Through the DREAMS partnership, PEPFAR is expanding our developmentally appropriate HIV and violence prevention programming for girls ages 9-14 to prevent sexual violence and any form of coercive, forced, or non-consensual sex; delay their sexual debut; help them understand consent; and encourage them to make healthy choices. We also continue to support services, such as post-exposure prophylaxis, for survivors of gender-based violence and are exploring additional methods for community violence prevention.
As for Dana, she enrolled in a DREAMS program, which has provided psychosocial and trauma counseling, an education subsidy to help her stay in school, and assistance in adhering to her antiretroviral medication. Dana also serves as a DREAMS ambassador, supporting other girls to overcome their own adversities and stay AIDS-free. In this capacity, she gave an inspiring speech at a local university’s International Day of the Girl Child event, passionately championing the importance of empowering and protecting girls like her.
The neighbor who raped Dana ran away once he realized he had been reported to police. “I am disappointed with the police who have done nothing to address my case two years down the line,” Dana said. “When I grow up, I want to be a police officer to deal with men who do bad things to young girls like me. I want to make a change in my community.”
Through DREAMS, PEPFAR is helping girls like Dana to write their own success stories and become change agents for themselves, their peers, and their communities.
*Not her real name
Photo: Jon Hrusa/Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation