Helping Out Of School Adolescent Girls Navigate HIV and AIDS Vices Through Economic Strengthening Programs in Mash West

By Michael Gwarisa

Being the first born child to both parents living with hearing and speech disabilities, 20 year old Cecelia Mhande from Chikangwe Township in Karoi, has not had it easy. Her situation got worse when her father lost his job at a local dealership a few years ago, plunging her entire family into untold economic hardships.

Even though she wrote and passed her Advanced Level (A Level) examinations in 2023, her prospects of going into University this year hang in limbo owing to the financial challenges back home. Some girls her age from her township have taken the easy way out, and have given in to the lure of Tobacco money and Sugar daddies, exposing themselves to the risk of HIV and AIDS. Owing to the influx of Tobacco farmers in the area, and overflowing liquidity, girls and young women in Karoi have fallen through the cracks.

Cecelia Mhande says the economic strengthening program has helped her stay away from trouble

However, for Cecilia sugar daddies are not on her menu, and marriage has to wait for now as she needs something that keeps her occupied. Luckily for her, she has found solace in the National AIDS Council’s (NAC) Sister to Sister program targeting out of schools girls and young women with a number of interventions.

 Right now I am waiting to go to University. I came out with 11 points. I however believe that if i stay at home and do nothing, I might get myself mixed up in some things, or get impregnated. This would disrupt my plans for the future,” said Cecelia in an Interview with HealthTimes during an Editors and Station Managers Media Tour of Mashonaland West province.

NAC is implementing the Sister to Sister program in 25 HIV hot spot districts in Zimbabwe, and Karoi is one of them. The out of school program is targeting girls and young women aged 17 to 24 years.

Cecelia is part of a group calling themselves the Queens of the Universe, who have been trained in a number of economic strengthening programs. These include detergent making, baking, among others. One of their popular products is the dish washing liquid which has captivated the market in Karoi has allowed the girls to contribute to their household economies.

“This has kept me away from trouble and has been occupying me since January. Whenever we make our detergents, we share the profit amongst members of our club. I at times but food stuff and other items for the house.”

The Queens of the Universe club has 25 members and at times they conduct one on one sessions where they learn about HIV, Sexual Reproductive Health (SRH), economic strengthening, financial management, among other topics. The National AIDS Council through its Sister to Sister mentors, uses a risk assessment tool to assess vulnerability and eligibility of AGYW who qualify to be part of the program.

Mavies Tagarira, a Sister to Sister Mentor under the National AIDS Council in Karoi said apart from empowering the girls economically, the program has improved HIV testing in girls and young women who are part of the program.

“When we start these clubs, we don’t just get into a community and pick randomly. We work mainly with out of school girls and young women especially those whom we identify through our risk assessment tool that they could be at higher risk of HIV and other vices. Our goal is to end AIDS by the year 2030. We also test the girls for HIV and those who test positive are initiated on treatment,” said Tagarira.

She added that out of school girls face numerous challenges which if not addressed, could expose them to  HIV infections and Gender Based Violence (GBV).

Mr Admire Takawira the National Aids Council District AIDS Coordinator for Karoi said the district was an HIV hot spot hence, the need to keep out of school girls occupied.

“One of the risks that is identified in girls and young women is that of being idle and that will likely lead them into transactional sex and other behaviors that could be of risk to them. By having them doing something that they do to generate some income, we remove those risk factors,” said Mr Takawira.

Targeting Out of School Girls In Farming and Rural Communities

The Sister to Sister program has not only empowered urban AGYW but also those from farming and rural communities in Mashonaland West. This also includes married adolescent women who fall within the age range stipulated under the Sister to Sister program. Previously, the Sister to Sister program would target in-school adolescent girls. However, in 2020, following evidence that out of school girls were equally at risk of new HIV infections, the program was expanded to those out of school.

At Umbowe Clinic in Mhangura and Richmond Farm, majority of beneficiaries under the Sister to Sister program are young girls and women in early marriages and early motherhood. Due the increase in Artisanal mining in the area, cases of Gender Based Violence, sexual abuse, Sexually Transmitted Infection (STIs) are rampart, as many young women are married to the miners.

“I learnt financial management through this program. It’s a good thing that we have learnt about Internal Savings and Lending Schemes (ISALs/Mukando), baking and other projects. I used to fight a lot with my husband over his money every month but now I am now equally playing my part,” said Itai Mutendi, a 2022 Sister to Sister Graduate.

Data has shown that GBV increases HIV risk directly and indirectly by limiting power to maintain healthy sexual relationships, refuse sex, negotiate condom use and through the impact of fear and trauma on help-seeking behaviors.

Adolescent Mothers benefit from economic strengthening program under the Sister to Sister program

Mrs Fortunate Chimbare a Sister to Sister mentor at Umbowe Clinic said GBV was a major risk for HIV in the area and the economic strengthening programs had come through to bridge that gap.

“We target vulnerable girls in this place. We have a lot of artisanal mining happening here and many girls are sexually abused and married early by the artisanal miners. Most of the girls we have here were married when they were 14 or 15 years.  These are the girls we try to reach with services. Their situation is unique as these are married. We try to teach them economic strengthening so that they earn their own income and stop relying solely on their husbands. This is working and we have seen a reduction in the incidence of GBV in the area” said Mrs Chimbare.

Why Targeting Out Of School Girls In Mash West Is A Must

Mashonaland West has seven administrative districts namely Karoi, Zvimba, Kariba, Hurungwe, Chegutu, Sanyati and Mhondoro Ngezi. The province has a 13 percent HIV prevalence according to data from the Demographic Health Survey.

Mr Davison Mambudzi, the National AIDS Council Program Officer said Mhondoro Ngezi has the highest HIV burden with 14.3 percent, followed by Chegutu which has 13. Percent. Zvimba has a 12.6 percent burden, Makonde 12 percent, Hurungwe also known as Karoi has 11.06 percent and Kariba has 9 percent.

He however said in all these districts, young adolescent girls and young women were at greater risk of HIV due to a number of contributing factors.

“Our HIV Key Populations include Adolescent girls and Young Women, Adolescent Boys and Young Men, Sex Workers and Men who have sex with men. The key drivers of HIV include inter-generational sex, we also have low risk perception and the issue of multiple concurrent sexual partners,” said Mr Mambudzi.

He added that other high risk groups include Fishermen, Artisanal Miners and Truck Drivers. The overall estimated number of new infections in the province is 2,222. For adults 15 years and above 1,833 new infections, for the 10 to 19 years old 283, and for the 5 to 24 age group 694, and for the 0 to 14 its 390.

 

 

 

 

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