GirlsRead! Helps Girls Choose Success over Shame

Evidence suggests that girls’ education, particularly at the secondary-school level, acts as a kind of “social vaccine” that prevents the spread of HIV1. A host of factors increase adolescent girls’ risk for school dropout and subsequent HIV infection in Zambia, where almost a third of women ages 20–24 marry by their 18th birthday (compared to 2% of males). In Lusaka, 24 percent of 15–19-year-old girls—and 16 percent in the Copperbelt—have begun childbearing. Despite high levels of HIV knowledge, among 15–19-year-old girls, 26 percent do not believe that a woman is justified in asking to use a condom if she knows her husband has an STI; 51 percent have never been tested for HIV; and of those who had sex in the past year, only 37 percent used a condom at last sex. In addition, adolescent girls lack safe spaces in which to gather and learn ways to challenge gender norms that contribute to HIV risk and poor reproductive health.

GirlsRead! is an education and empowerment program in Zambia run by the Population Council, the Forum for African Women Educationalists in Zambia (FAWEZA), and Worldreader as part of the DREAMS Innovation Challenge.

Safe spaces are the main platform of GirlsRead!, fostering non-familial social connections, engaging girls in conversations about gender biases, and helping them develop the social assets and confidence to progress to secondary school.

Ana, a 16-year-old GirlsRead! participant in Lusaka, is four years older than most girls in her Grade 7 class. As a child, she lived in a village in another province with her mother. When it was time to start Grade 3, Ana’s mother told her she had to stop going to school because she couldn’t pay the 100 Kwacha fee for the year (US$20 equivalent at the time).

Although primary school is supposed to be free in Zambia, it is common for schools to charge fees for parent teacher associations, maintenance, and administrative costs. When students cannot pay, they are told to leave the classroom. Only upon paying the fees are they allowed to return. Ana recalls that her mother said, “You won’t be going to school because I don’t have enough money to pay school fees.’ So I just had to stay home, I had no option, because when I used to go to school they would chase us out. We would sit in the sun, waiting for our friends, and feel bad about it. So I just stopped going.”

Ana did not attend school from the time that she was 8 until she was 11. The first two years she spent her days doing house chores and cleaning fish from the nearby river for her mother’s business. The third year, she moved to Lusaka to live with her older sister who helped get Ana back in school.

Ana started Grade 3 in Lusaka. Now in Grade 5, Ana faces pressure to drop out from other students and people in the community, who laugh at her because she is “too old” to be in Grade 7.

According to Ana, participation in weekly GirlsRead! has helped resist the pressure to drop out. “I learned to sit and think about how you are going to make a decision. For example, there were people laughing at me that I am too old to be in this grade. It wasn’t easy to continue. There were times when I would think of skipping school because I was being laughed at. After learning about decision-making, I knew that school is what I wanted so it didn’t matter what others were saying or if they were laughing at me.”

She continues, “If it wasn’t for this program, I would have stopped school because of being uncomfortable about my age, but instead I am able to put more effort in my education because of what I am learning in the program.”

When asked what advice she would give other girls who are behind for their age in school and thinking of dropping out, Ana says, “I would tell them that they can have their own future. They can be doctors, nurses, something big and nice rather than getting married. I would say, ‘Think of what you want to achieve, instead of following what people say. Stand on your own.’ It wasn’t easy for me. GirlsRead! lifted me up. When I grow up, I will encourage other people.”

JSI Research & Training Institute, Inc., is the DREAMS Innovation Challenge Funds manager and in that role supports 46 DREAMS-IC winners selected to execute cutting-edge programs across the 10 countries. JSI provides overall program support for DREAMS–IC and technical assistance to implementing partners includes strengthening partners’ institutional capacity to manage awards in compliance with U.S. Government regulations and supporting them in reaching the DREAMS–IC goal to reduce the incidence of HIV infections in adolescent girls and young women.

To learn more about GirlsRead! please visit www.popcouncil.org. To learn more about the DREAMS Innovation Challenge, please visit www.dreamspartnership.org. This publication was funded through a grant from the United States Department of State as part of the DREAMS Innovation Challenge, managed by JSI Research & Training Institute, Inc. (JSI). The opinions, findings, and conclusions stated herein are those of the author[s] and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of State or JSI.