Advancing Women & Girls
Photo by Nancy Cermeno
'The Future Belongs to Us'
By Maureen Simpson and Ruth Kundecha
Elsie Banda wants to be an accountant one day, but six letters have her attention right now. The alphabetic combination might seem simple, or even trite, to some, but for Elsie and more than 5,300 other girls in Malawi, D-R-E-A-M-S spells out a battle cry.
DREAMS is a global initiative of the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) designed to help adolescent girls like Elsie develop into Determined, Resilient, Empowered, AIDS-free, Mentored and Safe women. The goal of DREAMS is to reduce new HIV infections among adolescent girls and young women in 15 countries. PCI currently has DREAMS programs in Botswana and Malawi.
As a 13-year-old girl growing up in one of the world's least developed countries, Elsie is navigating a particularly vulnerable time of life. To compound an already difficult situation, she has no mother or father at home to help guide her.
"I have never had the chance to see my mother since I was four years old when she left to follow my dad to South Africa," Elsie said. "I would have loved to let her tell me how it was like growing up in those days-the challenges she faced as a young girl and if things are the way they appear now."
Poverty, gender inequality, sexual violence, orphanhood and a lack of education all contribute to girls like Elsie's vulnerability to HIV. The DREAMS program helps address these issues and gaps through weekly group and individual mentoring sessions as well as access to health care, social services, education support and post-violence counseling.
"I was not sure if I was going to like [DREAMS], but when I followed the teachings, I understood that these are the issues that will help shape the person I will become in the future," said Elsie, who first joined the program at her school two years ago. Now, the 8th grader serves as a DREAMS Ambassador.
"I was not sure if I was going to like [DREAMS], but when I followed the teachings, I understood that these are the issues that will help shape the person I will become in the future."
- Elsie Banda, DREAMS participant
"The day I came back from the ambassadors' workshop and our mentor told me to share what I learned, I slowly realized that I could stand and have that confidence," Elsie said. "People think I am very quiet, but that does not mean that I am shy."
To date, PCI Malawi has reached 5,311 adolescent girls in and out of school through the DREAMS program. The project has also linked 1,975 girls to HIV testing and counseling, more than 500 to screening and treatment for sexually transmitted infections, 234 to family planning services, and 87 to screenings for cervical cancer.
"[DREAMS] is important to young women in Malawi because it provides adolescent girls with their own safe space to discuss issues that affect them," said Ruth Kundecha, DREAMS Coordinator for PCI Malawi. "[They can] join hands with peers and speak against violence and access resources to continue with their education."
Even though Elsie enjoys going to school and plans to attend university, she acknowledges that girls face many challenges inside the classroom as well.
"Teachers underestimate us girls and make us look unworthy of their time. They believe girls cannot perform and outsmart the boys," she said. "Some teachers also think that because I am a girl then I cannot make it to the top of the class. I wish the teachers would understand that if we all work hard, we can be whatever we desire to become."
To counter the skeptics, Elsie draws encouragement and support from her time in the DREAMS program, with an eye towards proving wrong all those who doubt her ability to beat the odds.
"I have learned that one has to be resilient. Life is full of problems," she said. "There are times as people we have to accept the situation we find ourselves in, because it is temporary. [We have to] work hard to change the future, because the future belongs to us."