Preliminary results show that Namibia is incredibly close to meeting targets set for HIV epidemic control. But much work remains in Namibia – and in many other partner countries – before we can declare an AIDS free generation. Data show that the greatest threat is to women and girls, who disproportionately bear the burden of new HIV infections. In fact, a Namibian woman between the ages of 20 to 24 is two to three times more likely to be HIV positive than a man her age. Girls and young women account for a staggering 74 percent of new HIV infections among adolescents in sub-Saharan Africa.
Yet, we and our Namibian partners are prevailing. Namibia is one of the countries leading the world in implementation of a successful national response to end the HIV epidemic. For the past 14 years the United States, under the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and through the work of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), has partnered with the Namibian Ministry of Health and Social Services to fight HIV/AIDS. We remain committed to helping Namibians maintain their hard-won progress.
One PEPFAR-supported program making significant strides with Namibian women and girls in the fight against HIV/AIDS is DREAMS.
DREAMS is an ambitious partnership to reduce HIV infections among adolescent girls and young women in 10 sub-Saharan Africa countries, including Namibia. The goal of DREAMS is to help girls develop into Determined, Resilient, Empowered, AIDS-free, Mentored, and Safe women. DREAMS provides comprehensive solutions that go beyond traditional health services to address risk factors such as school drop-out, social isolation, economic disadvantage, and gender-based violence. This approach, and particularly DREAMS’ mentorship component, has been highly successful, because it takes what works in real life and applies it to the goal of keeping adolescent girls and young women HIV negative and on track to achieve their goals.
Unfortunately, due to gender and societal norms, these dreams are often interrupted. Research has shown that there is a cycle of HIV infection between older men and younger women. When an older man who is HIV positive has a relationship with a young woman, he infects her with HIV. She then eventually has a relationship with a young man of her own age, infecting him too. If he doesn’t get tested, he lives with the virus, and in turn passes it on to other young women. This cycle is affecting the dreams and aspirations of the youth, and we need to stop it.
As I recently told an audience at an event celebrating the first 1,400 girls enrolled in DREAMS in Namibia, being Determined, Resilient, and Empowered means to believe in yourself and to believe in your goals. For the girls in the DREAMS program, support to face the challenges in life will come in the form of the relationships built, the friends made, the services offered, and the opportunities provided through DREAMS.
DREAMS is a highly effective program with a strong track record. In the first 10 African countries that have implemented DREAMS, most districts achieved a 25-40% decline in new HIV diagnoses among adolescent girls and young women. In Namibia, the DREAMS program will strengthen the determination, resilience, and empowerment of adolescent girls and young women, giving them the tools they need to overcome the challenges in their paths.
For all the success that has already been achieved, the United States continues to look ahead with Namibia. There are many disparities within the HIV epidemic in Namibia. Not only are women and girls vulnerable, but so too are young men, many of whom don’t want to know their HIV status and get treatment. The struggle is far from over, but the United States will continue to stand with Namibia to find unique solutions to this very pressing challenge.
About the Author: Lisa Johnson serves as the U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Namibia.
Editor's Note: This entry also appears in the U.S. Department of State's publication on Medium.