Ensuring adolescent girls and young women in South Sudan are heard: The story of a social worker

March 30, 2022
Kumbirai leading a group session discussion, during the DREAMS Supervisor and Facilitator Training on the DREAMS ELA comprehensive package in April 2020. Credit: Achan Gladys/Jhpiego

In South Sudan, adolescent girls and young women (AGYW) are often marginalized and prevented from participating in things that matter to them as a result of the country’s entrenched and dominant patriarchal system. This has been exacerbated by a decade of war and subsequent socio-economic instability in South Sudan.

Consequently, vulnerable AGYW having their voice heard is not an easy task. Social workers like Kumbirai Tudor Mazaiwana play a pivotal role in ensuring AGYW have access to equal health, social, educational, and structural opportunities in hardship context. Kumbirai, who hails from Zimbabwe, works in Juba, South Sudan where he supports vulnerable and at risk AGYW under the USAID-funded Adolescents and Children HIV Incidence Reduction Empowerment & Virus Elimination (ACHIEVE) project. This includes ensuring that AGYW are enrolled in and meaningfully benefit from the DREAMS (Determined, Resilient, Empowered, AIDS-free, Mentored and Safe) empowerment livelihoods for adolescents (ELA) life skills and economic strengthening package. The project beneficiaries include: AGYW who are out of school or at a risk of dropping out, survivors of gender-based violence, AGYW with multiple concurrent partners, AGYW who abuse drugs, orphans, and those with a history of irregular or no condom use. 

“I focus on helping AGYW to be resilient and determined in the face of socio-economic and cultural determinants that heighten their risk of HIV infection.”

“I focus on helping AGYW to be resilient and determined in the face of socio-economic and cultural determinants that heighten their risk of HIV infection,” says Kumbirai. “I offer psycho-social support to restore their agency and self-esteem. I work with them to gain knowledge and skills required to overcome any concerns they have about HIV and by linking them to multiple DREAMS services such as HIV testing, STI screening and treatment, family planning, and psycho-social support.”

Kumbirai has worked with many AGYW, and orphans and vulnerable children (OVC), but the story of Kojo (not her real name) is the one that stands out the most. Kojo was brought to Juba City, South Sudan, from Keji County in 2013 by her parents. She was full of hope and looked forward to fulfilling her dream of attaining a quality education in the city. However, her dream slowly vanished when her aunt forced her to drop out of school. “One night, my aunt called me to her room, and I hesitantly complied,” said Kojo. “She asked me to spend the night with her.  When I got into bed, I heard someone crawl from beneath it, grab me and shut my mouth so hard I couldn’t scream. He raped me,” confided Kojo who is now a 17-year-old young mother of 3-year-old twins. “I woke up the next morning and reported it to my other aunt who lived 5 miles away from us,” Kojo went on to explain. “She took me in and immediately rushed me to the nearest hospital where I was put on post-exposure-prophylaxis [for HIV] for 28 days.” A month later, Kojo discovered that she was pregnant. With guidance from her aunt, Kojo kept the pregnancy and delivered her twin babies in 2018. She was 14 years old at the time. While her aunt continued to provide them with food and shelter, Kojo was employed at menial jobs to earn money to pay medical bills and buy clothing.

In October 2020, the DREAMS Program, with support from the USAID and the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), began activities in South Sudan. Kojo was among the first AGYW to be enrolled. According to Kojo, she was initially hesitant to share her story. However, during one of the ELA life skills modules, which involves learning how to deal with emotions, she stood up and told her story to the facilitator. She was immediately referred to Juba Teaching Hospital One Stop Centre for the secondary DREAMS support package: psychosocial support, free HIV Testing and STI screening, and family planning methods.

Today, Kojo is an active participant in the DREAMS program and has never missed a session. She says the Tree of Life sessions have helped her re-build her life when she threw away her worries onto the “compost heap.” She also says the games and sports included in the program have helped her to forget her worries and live the childhood life she missed out on. Looking ahead, she hopes to benefit from the DREAMS long-term course in tailoring where she expects to raise money for food, her medical bills, and school fees for her children. “Knowing my HIV status makes me happy and gives me strength to stay safe until I find a suitable suitor,” she said with a smile. 

“Knowing my HIV status makes me happy and gives me strength to stay safe."

Kumbirai’s story demonstrates the important role that social work plays in DREAMS programming. HIV prevention treatment for AGYW goes beyond the clinical care at health facilities and ensures AGYW have access to secondary services.

Through the DREAMS program in South Sudan, 2,459 AGYW are currently active in safe space clubs, 214 completed post-GBV referrals and 640 were trained in economic strengthening courses which include, tailoring, beauty therapy, sandal and juice making. A total of 180 graduated on February 10, 2022.

This story has been provided by ACHIEVE’s consortium partner in South Sudan, Jhpiego.