HIV RESILIENCE HEROES
With support from DREAMS, a teen and her grandmother learn to talk about anything – even HIV
Rosina Mwitelela, 16, was named for her paternal grandmother. When she was born, no one knew that the elder Rosina would end up raising her. She was just nine months old when her father died, leaving his baby in the care of his mother.
For as long as the younger Rosina can remember, her grandma has been more like a mom.
The two have always been close, they say smiling at one another. But that doesn’t mean they talked about things like men or HIV.
“As an older African woman, there were things that per custom I could not share with Rosina, especially things concerned about sex,” the elder Rosina says. “We’d say, ‘Do not move about with men,’ and that’s all.”
In 2016, around the time that the younger Rosina’s birth mother died of AIDS, things began to change. Rosina was in grade eight. A mentor with the DREAMS program came to her school in Lusaka’s Matero neighborhood and explained what it had to offer. At DREAMS centers across Zambia, 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.
Operating in 15 African countries and funded by PEPFAR, 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, nearly 500,000 girls and young women have taken part.
"Before DREAMS, I felt a lot of peer pressure from friends who were doing risky things."
Rosina decided to enroll. Like all new DREAMS girls, she took DREAMS’ 13-week Stepping Stones course, covering topics such as sex and reproduction, abstinence and HIV prevention and healthy relationships.
“Before DREAMS, I felt a lot of peer pressure from friends who were doing risky things,” Rosina says. “Now I know how to deal with that. I have my own free will.”
Around the same time, the elder Rosina signed up for DREAMS too, for the program’s Families Matter! component, a seven-week course for parents and caregivers of DREAMS girls. Families Matter! covers many of the same topics as Stepping Stones and teaches parents to talk openly with their daughters – which is far from the norm in Zambia, where topics like sex and HIV are still highly taboo.
“When I was coming home from Families Matter!, she was coming home from DREAMS,” says grandmother Rosina, a retired teacher. “We could share freely without any fear or stigma. I was taught to be open. I shouldn’t hide from explaining changes in her body or why she might have feelings she never had before.”
"I’m free to talk to grandma about anything."
The younger Rosina says she easily could have gone down the same path as many of her friends, or contracted HIV like her mother. “Most of my friends are now mothers,” she says. “Some drink or do drugs.”
But DREAMS gave her the knowledge and confidence to resist those risks: “I don’t do things to please people. I love me for who I am.”
Like her grandmother, she shares what she’s learned with family and friends to help others avoid HIV.
DREAMS has also helped Rosina stay in school through a program component that covers school fees for girls who can’t afford them. Now in grade eleven, she hopes to one day become a botanist. She’s also active in theater.
Both Rosinas, who live with five other family members, still rely on DREAMS for support. Although it’s been a few years since they finished their DREAMS courses, the younger Rosina remains a regular at her local DREAMS center, stopping in to work on homework and socialize, and the elder Rosina talks often with Alice, the center’s manager.
“I ring her anytime if I have a question about how to support my granddaughter as she gets older.”
No matter what challenges the younger Rosina might face, she says one thing is certain.
“I’m free to talk to grandma about anything.”