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Mar 08
Girls clubs provide a safe space for young women

​​​On this International Women's Day, we wanted to bring you a good news story about empowerment programmes for girls and young women that deliver results!​

We have all read the worrying statistics from districts like uMgungundlovu in KwaZulu-Natal, where at least one in every five adolescent girls and young women is living with HIV, and by age 16, one in every 10 women accessing antenatal care is HIV-positive. 

What you may not have heard about are the organisations working tirelessly on programmes to reduce the risks of girls and young women becoming infected with HIV. The Community Media Trust (CMT) is running a programme to end the economic exclusion and social isolation that often put girls between the ages of 10 and 24 at risk of HIV infection.

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Heading up the Girls' Clubs programme, which is implemented in Pietermaritzburg and Durban in KZN, are Lerato Maloka and Debbie Van Zyl.

"The pressure that women receive – from society, religion, culture, tradition as well as the biological expectations around childbearing and raising children – make it difficult for women to find themselves," explains Maloka. "The Girls' Club programme has provided a platform for young women and girls to explore and find themselves, and it has been exciting to see these seeds planted, and watching them grow and develop."

The Girls' Clubs are run by local female mentors, aged 18 to 30, who are able to relate to participants' unique experiences and challenges. Weekly meetings of each club of about 20 adolescent girls and young women (AGYW) cover a curriculum on HIV and sexual and reproductive health topics, social skills, safety planning, and financial literacy. Mentors make use of storytelling and role-play to improve AGYWs' negotiation skills and sense of self-worth. ​​​​​​​

"Participants of the Clubs have fun while building friendships and learning important knowledge and skills to help guide them safely through adolescence," says Van Zyl. "An additional bonus has been seeing the mentors blossom into confident, empowered young women, developing their knowledge and skillsets, furthering their own career paths, and accessing much needed employment opportunities." 

The Girls' Club sessions take place in walkable communities and in safe spaces. AGYW in need are referred to appropriate services delivered at local health facilities, including for HIV testing and counselling, and comprehensive sexual and reproductive health, as well as those offered through other partners providing such services in the local area.

The intended impact is to build the protective assets (health, social, cognitive and economic) of the beneficiaries to empower them to transition safely from adolescence into adulthood.

The community mentors trained by the programme say that it is an enriching experience which benefits them as much as their mentees. "As a mentor in my community, parents started to entrust their girl-children with me," says Sanelisiwe Mbatha from CMT in Pietermaritzburg.  "They saw that the programme brought such a positive impact in their lives. I also gained a lot of insight from my interactions with the young women I was working with."

Thandi Phoswa from the Richmond Caregivers Organisation, with which CMT has partnered to implement Girls' Clubs in the past, agrees: "Our area is deeply rural, so people in our community do not want to teach their girls about sex. The project has brought a change to the people's mindset, has brought transformation and brought hope. We are so grateful to DREAMS for giving us this life-changing opportunity."

Maloka says that while the programmes are delivering much-needed services and support to girls and young women, on this International Women's Day we need to stop and take stock of the status of women. "I believe that until society and culture changes the way that women are viewed and treated, we will not make the progress needed in order for all women to be safe and empowered and able to achieve their dreams."

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