Stephanie Funk Correspondent
At the heart of my work is a belief in equal opportunity for all. Commemorating International Day of the Girl Child (October 11) has propelled me to reflect on whether girls are afforded the opportunities they need to reach their fullest potential.
Through decades of work with the US Agency for International Development (USAID), I have lived and worked across Africa, including nine years in Zimbabwe.
I can say with great confidence and even pride that the girls of Zimbabwe are some of the brightest and most resilient I have ever seen.
When I talk to teenage girls here, they are full of hope and dreams.
Each one has the determination and ability to achieve great things.
It saddens me to know that they have a one in three chance of being married by age 18 and the same odds of being affected by physical violence. One in six already has a baby.
Two-thirds live in poverty. When they reach their early 20s, they will be three times as likely as their male peers to be HIV-positive.
How can a girl stay healthy and safe against these staggering odds?
Many adolescent girls and young women lack a full range of opportunities.
Social isolation, economic disadvantage, discriminatory cultural norms, orphan-hood, gender-based violence, and school drop-out all contribute to girls’ vulnerability to HIV.
Through the PEPFAR-funded DREAMS initiative, USAID is changing the way we work together to ensure an AIDS-free future for adolescent girls and young women.
DREAMS stands for Determined, Resilient, Empowered, AIDS-free, Mentored, and Safe.
The programme empowers girls to take control of their futures by providing a holistic package of services, including education assistance, HIV testing, sexual and reproductive health services, legal aid, gender-based violence prevention and response, safe spaces for learning and development, and vocational training.
Importantly, DREAMS also helps girls build their social assets — connections with peers, mentors, and service providers that serve as important sources of support and foster self-esteem.
Earlier this year, I met an 18 year-old girl who has faced too much adversity in her young life.
Orphaned at seven, abused by her caretakers, and living in poverty, she was depressed and struggling to stay in school.
This girl shared the impact DREAMS has had on her life: “If not for USAID’s DREAMS initiative, I would have done something I regretted. DREAMS paid exam fees, stationery, sanitary pads, and food to make sure I ate well.
“Right now I am standing in front of you very confident because of DREAMS. I don’t have to be bitter; I have to learn to love myself and learn to forgive.”
I have also met girls who tell me that they now have the confidence to say no to sex, or to say no to sex without condoms.
This enables them to remain HIV-free.
More and more girls are going back to school, learning entrepreneurship skills and earning degrees that enable them to make their own money and take control of their lives. These opportunities are life-changing.