AT the age of 11, Patience Chikozomba from Mukwatsa village and a primary school pupil at Magaranhewe Primary school in Rushinga was already thinking of dropping out of school since her parents couldn’t afford school fees for her and her siblings. Other girls her age or slightly older have already eloped or been married off due to the biting poverty obtaining in the area despite it being a resource rich community.
By Michael Gwarisa in Rushinga
According to the National Aids Council (NAC), even though there are starting to witness a decline in school dropouts, the period between March 2020 and January 2021 saw cases of school dropouts skyrocketing especially amongst girls in Rushinga. For young Patience, the thought of going to school bare footed in a ragged uniform haunted her to the extent that she even thought of becoming a house maid at a very tender age.
To rescue girls like Patience and alleviate the problem of persistent school dropouts and early marriages amongst young girls of school going age, the National AIDS Council (NAC) is implementing a modified version of the DREAMS program which they are funding in Muzarabani, Rushinga and Mbire districts and they are focusing mostly on assisting disadvantaged girls with school subsidies in the form of school fees, stationery provision, uniforms , sanitary wear as well as train teachers on comprehensive sexuality education.
DREAMS stands for Determined, Resilient, Empowered, AIDS Free Mentored and Safe (DREAMS) and was pioneered in the country through the United States government Presidents Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).
I can now wear shoes to school and I also have a school uniform now. At times the dreams program gives us sugar for tea and they paid for my school fees,” said Patience in an interview with HealthTimes on the sidelines of an Editors and Station Mangers Media Tour of Mashonaland Central province.
“At times we would go for days without eating food but that has since changes. With winter approaching, we were getting worried because we didn’t have blankets but now, we were given blankets and some food to cook.”
More than 400 girls in Rushinga district were absorbed under the DREAMS model and this according to the National AIDS Council has greatly reduced the number of early marriages and pregnancies as well as drop outs since beginning of the year. The girls have already had their school fees and other needs taken care of under the DREAMS program.
Speaking during the tour, Mrs Makiwa the DREAMS facilitator in Rushinga said they conduct rigorous risk and vulnerability assessments before they select beneficiaries for the DREAMS program.
“We have a risk assessment tool; we don’t juts pick randomly. We look at those who are more vulnerable and need assistance more than others. We select orphans, children from child headed families, children with parents who are chronically ill among others. We work with teachers to help us identify these children,” said Mrs Makiwa.
She added that they conduct routine HIV and viral load testing for girls under the DREAMS and also facilitate access to Anteretroviral medications for girls who are living with HIV and on medications.
Through the Parent to Child Communication (PCC) a model being implemented through the DREAMS model, programs around Sexual and Reproductive Health (SRH) have received support from parents and guardians in the community.
Mrs Lucia Chirwa a parent and active member of the PCC said, “The DREAMS program is helping a lot. We were happy when the program was introduced here when our colleague Mrs Makiwa was selected to go for training. The program came at a time school dropout had increased but now we are seeing that these kinds are now back in school.”
The DREAMS program has also created a platform for active participation and involvement of traditional leaders in the area.
“We thank the DREAMS program for coming into our community. Previously, we would have high burdens and cases of early child marriages and pregnancies but now, we are seeing a reduction in such. Even though the program is still at its embryonic stage, we are already seeing its fruits,” said Headman Magaranhewe from Rushinga District.
Meanwhile, Mr Eric Taramusi, the District AIDS Coordinator (DAC) for Rushinga District said the DREAMS program in Rushinga was being implemented in 10 hotspot wards that were mapped using the school dropouts prevalence.
“The DREAMS program we are implementing here is a modified program. We have three components namely Parent to Child Communication (PCC) where we have trained 20 mentors that are in the communities. In terms of school dropouts, for the first term, we recorded 179 school dropouts and 53 percent of those dropouts were girls and most of the dropouts from the girls were due to pregnancy or marriages during the lockdown. As you know during the lockdown period, school children were not going to school so they ended getting pregnant or getting married,” said Taramusi.
He added that they reached 489 girls under the DREAMS program against a target pf 500 girls in the previous quarter. And through the PCC program, they intend to retain more girls under the DREAMS and each mentor recruits 25 girls and they do sessions for three months with the girls.
Mr Edgar Muzulu the NAC Provincial Manager for Mashonaland Central said, “As NAC we are also funding the DREAMS model which focuses on vulnerable girls those who are disadvantaged and those who are marginalized and have less opportunities to grow in terms of schooling and to grow in terms of livelihoods and health related situations.
“You find that we selected 10 hotspot districts in the country and in this province, we have got Mazowe District. The program is being implemented through a consortium of implementers and they use as an approach which they call layering.” said Mr Muzulu.
He added that the new layering model under DREAMS works in tandem with other organisations such as the Zimbabwe Health Interventions (ZHI) which looks at the cultural norms and try to engage communities, CESHAR which focuses on Sex Workers, Howard Hospital which focuses on school subsidies among others.
“The problem which affects youths in schools is early pregnancies. We also have early child marriages in the province and also high school dropouts due to toa number of factors. The factors include the pregnancies and migration to look for opportunities especially the young boys where boys go into mining. The problem of dropouts is affecting both girls and young boys.
“When we focus on HIV, we find that the problem of HIV and STIs is more prevalent among the you g young girls. In terms of our prevalence, we have Mazowe District at 11%, Rushing District at 6.1% being the lowest. In terms of youths, adolescent girls and young women, we have a problem of sexual and gender-based violence.”
Districts most hit by the GBV problem in Mash Central include Mbire District, Rushinga District and Muzabarani District as well as Shamva and Bindura Districts.