When Angelo Domingos’ daughter came to him with news that she would be re-enrolling in school, his heart leapt with joy. Only a short time had passed since she, like many young Mozambican girls, had dropped out of school after finding herself pregnant at a young age. Angelo’s other daughter had followed suit, and it seemed likely that they were destined for the downward spiral of pregnancy and lack of education that affects too many vulnerable young women in Africa.
As a nurse of twenty-four years, Angelo knew from both his professional and now personal experience that young girls are often the most susceptible to predatory adults, sexually transmitted diseases, and the trials that come from having few, if any, role models in the community. Desperate to help his daughters find a way out of the seemingly intractable problems burdening his family, Angelo began to volunteer with a local program funded by USAID through PEPFAR, and implemented through the Johns Hopkins University Center for Communication Programs.
This initiative, called Avante Raparigas! (Go Girls!), aims to educate communities on how to communicate more effectively with young women about the endless series of dangers, difficulties, and discouragements they are so often forced to endure. The program excels at bringing parents and children together to discuss difficult topics: risky sexual behavior, peer pressure, alcohol abuse, and even the prevalence of pornography within the community. Using a series of visuals, brochures, manuals, and trainings, the Go Girls! Program helps parents navigate the sensitive and often awkward conversations they need to have with their children to support safe and healthy futures.
Young women in Mozambique are disproportionately affected by the HIV epidemic. With a specific focus on reducing the number of HIV infections in girls aged 10 to 17, Go Girls! has reached out to over 1,000 community leaders in eight different villages and has touched the lives of over 5,000 individuals in those targeted areas. While Angelo had signed up as a volunteer to help as many young women as possible, the most immediate benefit was the improvement of his relationships with his daughters.
“My daughters were in the target group that received training in life skills and adult-child communication,” he said at the recent closing ceremony held on May 11th in Maputo, Mozambique’s capital. In front of an audience of dozens that included U.S. Ambassador to Mozambique Leslie Rowe, Angelo made it clear to all those listening: “My daughters have benefited from the course.” During his speech, he talked movingly of how they achieved an early victory together when, after learning that many young girls were being lured by older men into video houses showing pornographic films, people in the program convinced the establishments to stop the practice of showing adult films during the day. They even got the adult video houses to promise not to allow admission to any underage girls, no matter what the hour.
Jose Baessa, a 47 year old school headmaster, is another who has witnessed first-hand the results of this program. Jose asked Go Girls! to work with his students, and quickly noticed the difference in the way the young girls carried themselves, and communicated with other. Most tangibly -they were no longer becoming pregnant. In fact, just one year into the program, teen pregnancies in the Mogovolas District of Nampula Province—where Jose was headmaster—dropped all the way to zero. A shocking—albeit thrilling—turn of events for a community too often beset by bad news. Jose even noted a closer relationship between teachers and students after Go Girls! began their work. In one memorable case, school teachers were able to successfully intervene with four girls who were involved in prostitution—a practice all too common in rural Mozambican communities. “Now the girls are enrolled in a training course for teachers,” Jose said, beaming with pride.
Not all the benefits have been anecdotal. Results from the Go Girls! evaluation suggest that the lessons learned in meetings remain with the program’s beneficiaries – over 90% of adults who participated in Go Girls! recall the content of the adult-child communication sessions they attended, such as topics on how to talk to children about safe sex and HIV/AIDS. Girls whose parents participated in the adult-child communication program reported improved relationships with their mothers and fathers, and girls whose teachers were in the program reported feeling safer in school relative to girls not in the program. Of course, imitation is the most successful form of flattery and to that end many principals and teachers are hoping to replicate the program with children outside the current target ages of 10 to 17 years old.
The need for action is strong. With HIV infection rates at extremely high levels amongst Mozambican youth, a program like Go Girls! that targets HIV reduction can make a life or death difference to vulnerable young women. As U.S. Ambassador Rowe noted in her speech at the ceremony, “Survey results indicate that Mozambican girls aged 15 to 24 are currently afflicted with an HIV prevalence of 11.1% whereas their male counterparts only have a corresponding prevalence of 3.7%. This is unacceptable, period. It is up to all of us to work together to make sure that our programs – across all sectors – address the vulnerabilities of women and girls, especially to HIV and AIDS.”
While the bigger picture is very important to someone with a strong social conscience like Angelo Domingos, it was clearly his personal benefit from the program that brought him the greatest joy. Despite all the adversity his daughters would continue to face, he could relax knowing that they were back on track to receive an education and hopefully, a brighter future.