Protecting Botswanan Girls' Dreams in the Time of COVID-19
Last spring, just a few weeks into the global coronavirus pandemic, PCI's DREAMS program in Botswana had one message for its social media followers and the more than 3,000 adolescent girls and young women it serves: "Even through COVID-19, we remain Determined, Resilient, Empowered, Healthy [AIDS-free], Mentored and Safe from HOME."
The statement served a dual purpose: 1. To remind participants of the six characteristics that define them and the global initiative of the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR); and 2. To assure them they were not alone.
In Botswana and countries around the world, public health emergencies have shown that when systems break down, adolescent girls and young women are often the first to suffer. During the COVID-19 pandemic, measures to restrict movement and increase social distancing have exacerbated risk factors that lead to violence against women and girls and reduced access to essential HIV and sexual reproductive health services.
In response to these compounding challenges, with funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development through PEPFAR Botswana, PCI, a Global Communities Partner, adapted its DREAMS program to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 and safeguard the health and well-being of adolescent girls and young women.
DREAMS has been a source of information and inspiration and is helping we young ladies get through the pandemic.
19-year-old DREAMS participant
"COVID-19 was a game changer," said Thandi Tumelo, programs manager for PCI/Botswana. "Immediately following the restrictions put in place, including school closures, participation in DREAMS dropped by nearly 25%. This was alarming, because safe spaces are essential for mental health, and the COVID-19 restrictions brought about loneliness and anxiety in addition to creating an environment that exacerbates risk factors that lead to violence against women and girls."
To address this issue, PCI/Botswana expanded its hybrid model of virtual and in-person meetings, known as fusion safe spaces, to ensure adolescent girls and young women could still access essential social and emotional support services, including HIV, sexual reproductive health and violence prevention education.
Prior to the pandemic, the DREAMS program in Botswana was operating primarily through weekly in-person meetings at sites where participants were able to connect with their peers under the guidance of a mentor, in a secure, judgment-free environment. COVID-19 meeting restrictions prompted the virtual conversion of 33 DREAMS safe spaces. Additional safe spaces were added from March until August, and by the end of 2020, more than 200 were operational. This allowed the program to increase sessions to twice a week as opposed to once a week prior to lockdowns and limits on gatherings.
Fusion safe spaces tackled issues of mental wellness related to loneliness and isolation during the pandemic. They also addressed gender-based violence through prevention education discussions around safety nets and sharing emergency contacts.
PCI/Botswana staff, DREAMS mentors and implementing partners have found a way to maintain communication with program participants even under strict lockdown measures. They conduct weekly check-ins via WhatsApp and conference calls and continue to educate and engage participants through social media channels and The Catch, a radio program broadcast every Saturday morning. PCI coordinates the show with rotating monthly partner involvement. Illustration courtesy of DREAMS Botswana Facebook page
"We complied with social distancing and government guidelines for school activities, yet we are still managing to make a difference in the lives of adolescent girls and young women," said Phemelo Jack, a Life Skills facilitator with the DREAMS program in Botswana. "I love working with my students. They teach me new things and bring the best out of me."
One 19-year-old participant, who joined DREAMS in July 2020, said the program has been "truly supportive" during such a challenging time for so many people.
"Our mentor encouraged us to open up and share our feelings whenever we felt lost during the pandemic," she said. "In our virtual meetings, we were also reminded to stay COVID-safe by washing hands, wearing masks and keeping a safe distance in social gatherings. In short, DREAMS has been a source of information and inspiration and is helping we young ladies get through the pandemic."
According to Tumelo, expansion activities played a significant role in continuing services amid COVID-19, especially among older participants. Despite the initial drop in participation, the DREAMS program eventually enrolled 90% of its annual target, with most enrollments occurring after the safe space model was expanded.
"It is gratifying to come up with innovative solutions that expanded the safe space model to deliver critical information and support for adolescent girls and young women during pandemic restrictions," Tumelo said. "We continue to look at ways to reach those girls who don't have access to phones, so that they too can benefit from DREAMS."
DREAMS fusion safe spaces were created in response to COVID-19.
Story by Maureen Simpson