Independence is in Style

Story by Juliana Allen
Photos by Frank Kimaro

Shinyanga Region, Tanzania — Jackline, Tatu and Elizabeth are within a few years of each other, live in the same region, and even wear the same shoes — though you wouldn’t know it by the unique styling each of them wear.

Three women with big dreams and the power to reach them thanks to DREAMS, a partnership helping girls develop into Determined, Resilient, Empowered, AIDS-free, Mentored and Safe women. With help from TOMS and the government of Tanzania, girls across the country are gaining independence, opportunity, and a healthy dose of style along the way.

In sub-Saharan Africa, young women are up to 3 times more likely to be infected with HIV than their male peers. Why? Gender inequity. Adolescent girls and young women like Jackline too often lack access to the educational opportunities and independence that men in their communities do. The inequity places girls in greater danger of exploitation — forcing them into high-risk relationships to sustain their livelihood.

Jackline, not surviving — thriving

Jackline was in just such a risky relationship. “I am survivor of gender based violence,” she says. “Being dependent on a man was the main reason for me to remain under such circumstances.”

But thanks to DREAMS, which is offered through the US Agency for International Development-supported Sauti project, Jackline learned financial literacy, entrepreneurial skills and gained a reproductive health education. “We help each other fight poverty and make money on our own through small businesses,” she says.

Tatu, forging a positive future

Tatu left an unsafe relationship and returned home, where she met community members who were a part of Sauti. “They advised me on the importance of checking my health. That’s why I decided to test for HIV. I was found positive. It was a tough time, but slowly I coped, after receiving ongoing counseling as well as linkage to start medicine.”

Like Jackline, when Tatu graduated from a months-long peer-led series of sessions on gender, power and reproductive health, she received a pair of TOMS shoes, a tangible mark of graduation, and an opportunity to put some of her new skills to use. Together with her fellow graduates, she customized her shoes using trades that she learned during her DREAMS sessions — tailoring, painting, bead work and more.

“I wear these shoes almost every single day,” Tatu says. “They are my favorite.”

Jackline, who wears the shoes daily at her job, agrees. “They are durable,” she says, and, “we have learned how to customize them.”

Elizabeth, pursuing her dreams

At 19, Elizabeth is the youngest of the three girls. Through DREAMS, she and her friends established their own girls group to push for economic independence and avoid risky relationships and activities. “Many of us are fully engaged with businesses, be it farming, or selling some products. I have a small business of making and selling local food products,” Elizabeth says. She wears her TOMS on business trips to nearby villages — putting her newfound skills to work in style!

DREAMS is a public-private partnership between PEPFAR, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Girl Effect, Johnson & Johnson, Gilead Sciences and ViiV Healthcare. It is a part of USAID’s Sauti Project, led by Jhpiego, in key regions of Tanzania. From October, 2015 through December, 2018 over 310,000 adolescent girls and young women have participated in educational sessions on gender and power relations, health and life skills. They’ve collectively saved nearly $1 million USD, and have benefitted from HIV testing and counseling services, including links to follow-up care for those who test positive.