It is almost midday in Tshiyakwakhiwe village, Dlamini in Tsholotsho, the scorching sun’s intense rays’ heat glares down my neck and I quickly break out into more than a little sweat. Loud squeaky voices and cows bellow can be heard from a distance approaching the Gombalume safe space. Tall trees give plenty of shade under the blazing sun and we all rush to take shade while a group of young girls approach us and take shade under the trees next to us.
Among the group of Adolescent girls and young women that arrive one girl with a baby on her back stood out as she confidently greets us and introduces herself. Her name is Lucia Ncube and she is 19years from Tshiyakwakhiwe village ward 2 of Tsholotsho district. Her confidence stuns all of us and we wonder how such a young innocent girl has a 4 month old baby,
“I innocently fell in love with my boyfriend and because of young and immature love we quickly started engaging in sexual activities. He assured me that I was not going to get pregnant if we indulge for the first time and he promised he was not going to impregnate me. I naively believed him and I gave in. A month later, a bomb dropped on me, I was pregnant,” narrated a bright-faced Lucia, you would expect her to sadly share her story but that was not the case with her.
Born and bred in Tsholotsho, one of the most conserved communities in Zimbabwe, Lucia had little to no information on her Sexual Reproductive Health Rights and this was a taboo conversation to be discussed in a family setup,
“Growing up, we never discussed issues to do with practicing safe sex , family planning, and sex in general. As a young girl I was discouraged to talk about such issues. I could have practiced safe sex, avoided pregnancy and being a mother at a young age,” she said.
“Use of any family planning methods was unheard of especially for Adolescent Girls and Young Women who would have never had children. Family planning was attached to myths of possible lifetime infertility yet every woman`s dream is to breastfeed at some point in their life,” shared Lucia.
In January 2022, Lucia enrolled in the Zimbabwe Partnership to Accelerate AIDS Control (ZimPAAC), supported DREAMS program that is being implemented in the Matabeleland North province of Zimbabwe in Lupane, Tsholotsho, Bubi and Nkayi districts.
“The DREAMS program has changed my life for the better. It has opened my eyes. If I had had the information I have now earlier my life would have been different. However there is no need to cry over spilled milk, I have decided to make my life better for me and my son,” said Lucia
“ Now I know how to protect myself while practicing safe sex, I know how to avoid unwanted pregnancies, I have access to family planning methods, HIV self-testing and the use of Pre- Exposure Prophylaxis. Through the Health4Life sessions I have learnt that I have rights to protect myself and my body, I have learnt about financial literacy and how important it is for me to save and start my own business. This is something I had never thought of but now I need to build a bright future for my son.”
“We were trained on ISALS and we have started a group with my friends and we intended to assist each other start a business and build a better future for us,” She said.
Lucia is one of the 27 000 AGYW mentored through the DREAMS program to date to enhance knowledge, strengthen social protection of AGYW, and build social assets. The DREAMS program seeks to reduce new HIV infections among the most vulnerable adolescent girls and young women by 40% in the highest HIV burden districts in Zimbabwe. DREAMS implementing partners (Bantwana and Pangaea Zimbabwe AIDS Trust) under the ZImPAAC consortium prioritize AGYW’s health, wellbeing, and HIV epidemic control through the provision of evidence-based curricular and need-based secondary services.
Located about 98 km north-west of Bulawayo, the second largest city of Zimbabwe, lies the Tsholotsho growthpoint The main economic activity in Tsholotsho is farming however the soils are bad for cultivation which then deprives young people in this area of economic activity in farming. Young people with no economic activity are at risk of contracting HIV and AIDS especially Adolescent girls and young women (AGYW). Petra Sibanda (22), one of the Community based facilitators of ward 3, Kopane village in Tsholotsho, is one of the many AGYW that the Determined, Resilient, Empowered, AIDS-free, Mentored and Safe (DREAMS) project has positively impacted in Matabeleland North province of Zimbabwe.
Petra who became a mother at 16, believes if she had gotten the information she got through the DREAMS project earlier she would have made better choices. After falling pregnant with no immediate plans to be parents, Petra and the father of the child panicked which resulted in the father refusing to be a part of the baby’s life,
“When I got pregnant, I did not have sufficient information on how to protect myself, we were young. It was not an easy pregnancy and having to do it alone was even harder,” she said.
After giving birth to her baby girl, Petra heard about the Dreams project from the Head nurse at the clinic in her village, she quickly applied for the Community based Facilitator role and was successful.
“The DREAMS project changed my life, now I know that I have the right to protect myself from unwanted pregnancies and contracting HIV, AIDS and STIs. I have insight as to how PreP works and with access to such information I can simply say I am empowered and no one can violate me,” said bright-eyed Petra.
Every Adolescent girl and young woman dreams of a future in which they are empowered and are able to pursue their dreams. Petra dreams of becoming an Accountant one day and as a CBF, she encourages AGYW to protect themselves and be empowered to reduce the risk of contracting HIV through Health4life sessions where they have youth friendly reproductive health sessions on condom use, Prep uptake, stigma and discrimination.
The DREAMS project has changed Petra’s life. She now lives a life of purpose and inspires other AGYW in her community to live a healthy and dignified life.
It was on the 5th of September 2017, in the evening, when Lucienne (41years) decided to administer an HIV self-test in the comfort of her home together with her husband. Like all the other days, after hectic farm work, Lucienne was tired and wanted to rest but after visiting her best friend who is the Village health worker who gave her an HIV self-test kit, she wanted to do the test that night and get it over and done with.
“I remember the day and time vividly, the 5th of September 2017, around 8 pm in the evening. 20 minutes later the results came in, and we were all HIV positive. We could not believe it at first. How can a self-test kit show that we were both positive? It could not be,” she said.
After a week of deep thinking and chatting to a close friend who advised her to visit the nearest clinic, Lucienne decided to do another test at the local Nyameni clinic in Marondera,
“My husband tagged along, though he was skeptical about it, we were both scared, but we had to be certain and sure of our HIV status. The results came and we were all HIV positive. That is when reality sunk in. We were so angry with each other at that moment,” she said.
“We were quickly initiated on ART. Back home, our Village Health worker who is also a friend stood with us and assisted us with all the information we needed, we forgave each other and started to live positively,” said ever-smiling Lucienne.
Lucienne and her husband are well known at Sambok farm as they live an open life, they do not hide that they are living with HIV and take their medication openly.
“I am not ashamed of my status, my children know our status, and taking our medication is a family business, my children remind us every day of the need to take our medication religiously,”
“Being HIV Positive is not the end of the world. One can live a healthy and normal life if they adhere to taking their medication as prescribed,” she said.
Zim-TTECH, under the Zimbabwe Partnership, to Accelerate AIDS control consortium, strives to reach hard-to-reach communities through Community outreach approaches where clinical services are provided to the community. Services such as Viral Load sample collection, HIV testing, Cervical cancer screening, ART Refill, Condom Distribution, and PrEP initiation and uptake are provided during the outreach.
Lucienne gets her Viral load sample collected, ART Refill, and Cervical cancer screening services all at once.