Photo: Brian Clark/Pact

Her future once uncertain, a ‘DREAMS girl’ in Zambia takes charge


Mary Mwanakufwa went wherever the wind blew her – that’s how she describes her life when she was 20.

It was 2017. She was in her last year at a local university and had no idea what she’d do next.

“I didn’t have a plan,” she recalls. “I probably would have just sat at home.”

Friends were filling their time with things like drinking and casual relationships with men. Mary admits she wasn’t well equipped to handle peer pressure.

“It would have been very easy to take a bad path. I saw my friends doing this to keep up a social life.”

One day, Mary sat in on a short presentation by someone called a DREAMS connector. Only a few years older than Mary, the woman explained the basics of DREAMS, a program that operates centers across Zambia where girls and young women can access a range of free services to help them be independent and HIV-free, including family planning, HIV testing, business and vocational training, and psychosocial support for survivors of gender-based violence.

Pact began opening DREAMS centers in Zambia in 2015 with funding from PEPFAR. Operating in 15 African countries, DREAMS is an ambitious effort to significantly reduce new HIV infections among girls and young women between the ages of 10 and 24 by addressing many factors that make them more vulnerable to HIV. DREAMS stands for determined, resilient, empowered, AIDS-free, mentored and safe. In Zambia, where DREAMS is implemented by Pact and its partners, nearly 500,000 girls and young women have taken part.

“The way I was before DREAMS compared to after – it transformed me.”
Today, Mary Mwanakufwa is a DREAMS connector in Kalingalinga. (Photo: Brian Clark/Pact)

Mary thought DREAMS might be for her, so she enrolled at her local DREAMS center in Lusaka’s Kalingalinga neighborhood. With a group of other young women between the ages of 20 and 24, she took the program’s introductory 13-week Stepping Stones course. Led by a volunteer DREAMS mentor, it covered topics such as communication in relationships, HIV prevention, family planning and financial literacy.

After Stepping Stones, Mary took a deeper dive into earning and saving money through a DREAMS course called Enterprise Your Life.

“It really opened up my mind,” she says.

Soon she had a plan for starting her own small business selling pants and shoes to students at her university.

“The way I was before DREAMS compared to after – it transformed me.”

When the Kalingalinga center asked Mary in 2018 if she’d be interested in volunteering as a DREAMS mentor, she jumped at the chance. The following year, she became a full-time staff member as a DREAMS connector, visiting schools, churches and health clinics to recruit and enroll new DREAMS girls. She is still doing the job today, with her sister now running the day-to-day operations at her clothing business, which is thriving.

It was a DREAMS connector who opened the door for Mary to a successful, HIV-free future. Now, she says, she couldn’t be happier to be doing the same for others.

“DREAMS gives girls information and power to make the right decisions. DREAMS helps girls bounce back from problems and be their own boss,” she says.

“That’s what DREAMS did for me. I’m a DREAMS girl.”

Learn more about DREAMS here.


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