Lunzu, Blantyre District, Malawi — Alinafe Machilika had to leave high school before finishing her final year, dashing her hopes of becoming a nurse. Her family couldn’t afford the fees.
The teen quickly married and soon had a baby, which left her wholly dependent on her husband. The couple fought, mostly about money. With little hope that she alone could provide for her 11-month-old daughter, Theodora, Alinafe returned to her parents’ home, even though they too were struggling financially.
In Blantyre district, where Alinafe lives, young women have few options if they leave school early—which is the case for the vast majority of young women. In fact, only 6 percent of girls in Malawi graduate from secondary education each year. Only 2.9 percent seek post-secondary education. Most are vulnerable to early pregnancy and marriage before they are emotionally ready, and they are exposed to high-risk behaviors that can lead to HIV infection.
To change that reality for thousands of girls in Malawi, Jhpiego has been implementing the Gateway project since September 2018. In partnership with the Malawi Ministry of Health, the project aims to reduce the vulnerability of girls and young women to HIV by improving access to health services and offering paths to economic empowerment.
Gateway is funded by the U. S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) under the Determined, Resilient, Empowered, AIDS-free, Mentored, and Safe (DREAMS) initiative.
“From the onset of the DREAMS initiative, Jhpiego has been determined to support girls from across Blantyre district to realize their DREAMS, which were nearly shattered due to early pregnancies, school drop outs and early marriages, these vulnerabilities are drivers to HIV infection,” said Getrude Chipungu, Gateway project director. “Jhpiego, through the Gateway project is implementing the DREAMS program to equip adolescent girls and young women with skills and knowledge to deal with expectations, behaviors and attitudes that put them at high risk of HIV infection and make them vulnerable.”
DREAMS provides a comprehensive package of services that address the broad needs of girls and young women. In addition to preventing HIV and making sure that people living with HIV get healthy and stay that way, it’s about linking youth with reproductive health and family planning services, helping them achieve financial literacy and empowerment and preventing gender-based violence.
“Jhpiego is strong across many different technical areas that fall under adolescent health,” said Meghan Greeley, Jhpiego’s technical advisor for adolescent health. “If a 16-year-old is seeking family planning, we aim to see the full picture of her needs and provide much more than a choice of methods, including social support and HIV prevention strategies.” Meghan also noted Jhpiego’s innovative immunization strategies to engage adolescents in the prevention of HPV, which can lead to cervical cancer, especially in women who are living with HIV.
Currently, Jhpiego is helping girls to piece together their shattered dreams through DREAMS in eight countries: Namibia, South Sudan, Botswana, Cote d’Ivoire, Lesotho, Rwanda, Mozambique and, of course, Malawi. In Malawi, one in four new HIV infections occurs among young women, according to a recent report from UNAIDS that reveals just how disproportionately women and girls are affected by what is described as “a prevention crisis.” In fact, young women in Malawi aged 15 to 24 are at almost twice the risk of acquiring HIV compared to males of the same age.
In October 2020, Alinafe met a Gateway community health volunteer. “I was struggling and losing hope until Jhpiego arrived in my village and one of the club mentors [a volunteer working with Jhpiego] introduced me to the DREAMS club in our community,” said Alinafe. “Regardless of having a child or failing to cope with married life or poverty, I was encouraged. I was told that this was not the end, but the beginning of my future.”
At club meetings, Alinafe and 28 other girls and young women learned about ways to reduce their risk of acquiring HIV. The members encouraged each other to make decisions to preserve their health and safety and lead healthier lives. They discussed economic empowerment and gender issues while learning entrepreneurship skills. Trainings included proper ways of establishing and doing business, developing capital and identifying potential income-generating activities. The DREAMS clubs serve girls, ages 10–14, and adolescents and young women, ages 15–24.
“The club has changed my life,” said Alinafe, now 20 and studying hotel management and catering at the Malawi Institute of Tourism. “I will take my knowledge back to the girls at home who are like me and tell them to dream big.”
She is among 19,238 young women and adolescents in Malawi to benefit from the Gateway DREAMS initiative through educational support and enrollment in vocational training in the hotel industry, plumbing trades and tailoring. Village savings and loan groups also figure prominently in the DREAMS clubs, encouraging a culture of saving and entrepreneurship.
“The DREAMS program is having a great impact,” said Getrude. “The adolescent girls and young women are getting talents and believing in themselves, they can go into the world and tap from the many opportunities that are out there and become what they have always dreamed of.”
“Because of this program, I learned not to doubt myself,” Alinafe said. “I am confident and now understand what I am capable of and what I can achieve.
“Before, my dreams were shattered, but I now see a brighter future. I can become independent and support myself and my child.”
Sarah Sakanda is a communication and knowledge management specialist for Jhpiego in Malawi. Maryalice Yakutchik, a communications manager for Jhpiego, also contributed to this story.