In Zambia, digital skills give DREAMS participants a leg up

October 19, 2021
Justina Yumba was one of three digital skills training participants chosen for an internship at Lusaka's University Teaching Hospital ICT department. Credit: DREAMS

Justina Yumba has big plans for her future. The 18-year-old, who lives in Lusaka and loves reading novels, aspires to become a midwife and earn a bachelor’s degree in nursing.

But as the third of six children in a family that has struggled to make ends meet, Justina has long had to prioritize other needs. She has been braiding hair since she was 12 to earn money for her family and now works in a salon to contribute income.

Despite all of these commitments, Justina made time to take part in DREAMS, a USAID/PEPFAR-funded program for adolescent girls and young women (AGYW), to empower them with knowledge to reduce their risk of becoming infected with HIV. DREAMS stands for determined, resilient, empowered, AIDS-free, mentored and safe. In Zambia, DREAMS is implemented by Pact and its partners through the USAID Z-CHPP project, which has served thousands of AGYW, helping them to learn about HIV, to gain access to health services such as HIV testing and family planning, to become economically empowered and much more.

In 2020, Pact launched a new initiative through DREAMS to help AGYW gain basic digital literacy skills. Under the new DREAMS component, AGYW attend trainings lasting five to 10 days covering a range of computer skills, including all of the basic Microsoft programs, social media and digital skills needed to successfully start a business. Participants are also linked to established female mentors to support them with career insights and connections to economic opportunities in which they can use their new skills.

Knowing that computer skills are important for college and a nursing career, Justina was thrilled to sign up. She’s one of more than 6,500 AGYW who have taken part so far across five districts in Zambia. The digital literacy skills courses are taught by trained female instructors at DREAMS centers, with AGYW meeting in groups of 10 to 15 but working in pairs.

To allow the courses to safely continue amid Covid-19, Pact distributed training laptops pre-loaded with the digital skills curriculum so AGYW could access home-based learning.

"The world today is largely driven by digital skills, so empowering AGYW with these basics is critical."

On the left, digital skills training participant Agness Phiri. On the right, Justina Yumba. Credit: DREAMS

“The world today is largely driven by digital skills, so empowering AGYW with these basics is critical,” says Misozi Siwela-Chisenga, Pact’s senior DREAMS manager in Zambia. “The courses also help students build problem-solving skills and bring value to their communities. We focus on practical applications, like using digital skills to start a small business, and we provide mentors to help. It’s a lot more than just computer skills.”

That was certainly the case for Justina. After she performed exceptionally well during the course, she was selected along with two other participants for a three-month internship in Lusaka at the University Teaching Hospital’s ICT department, helping her sharpen her skills while learning more about her desired career.

“I have been exposed to the hospital environment and systems, which is a great advantage, especially with the career that I intend to pursue,” she says.

The income she earned through the paid internship also made a big difference.

“I was able to pay for my application forms to Zambia Institute for Medical and Psychological Studies,” she says, “where I was accepted under the nursing bachelor’s degree program.”