Amy Green, Health-e News
An estimated 2 000 new HIV infections occur in young women and girls every week in South Africa. Two high-profile programmes are aiming to address this crisis. In this joint Spotlight/Health-e News Service special investigation, we go beyond the bells and whistles and ask what difference these programmes are really making.
Roughly 40km outside Durban lies the small town of Molweni. This is where a young woman, Nontokozo Zakwe – now 26 – grew up.
“One of the things I noticed growing up was that gender-based violence (GBV) was the norm,” she says. “And the mentality was: if it happens to you, get over it. If it didn’t kill you, you’re going to be okay.”
The first time ‘it’ happened to Zakwe, she was just 11 years old.
“We had two options on our walk back home from school: the road, or the short cut past the river,” she says. Most days she took the road; but one day, after staying late after school, she decided to use the short cut, because it was getting dark.
“Then this man, he raped me.”
Zakwe survived the attack and made her way home, where she lived with a number of cousins and siblings. Her mother worked in another province, she didn’t know her father at that point, and her grandmother could only afford to come home one weekend a month from her job as a domestic worker on the other side of the country.
“But being from the kind of community I was from, when I got home I decided to sleep. I cried myself to sleep,” she remembers.
A visiting aunt woke Zakwe up that evening, pulled back the covers, noticed blood, and asked the young girl what had happened.
“When I told her, she told me everything was going to be okay. I could tell in her eyes she was sorry for me and wished it hadn’t happened, but that she felt there was nothing she could do except tell me I was going to be okay,” Zakwe says.
“We were forced not to talk about things. Talking that could help us heal. One can imagine, these experiences – experienced by many young girls, around the country – can leave you vulnerable to HIV, teen pregnancy and other problems.”
At the age of 11, not even a teenager yet, Zakwe was expected to overcome the trauma of that violent experience, stay in school, and avoid early pregnancy, without any support – psycho-social, financial or otherwise – jn becoming a successful HIV-negative adult.
2 000 infections a week
It is against this backdrop of the lived experiences of many young women in South Africa that a staggering 2 000 new HIV infections occur in young women and girls every week. Over 70 per cent of new HIV infections in people aged 12 to 24 in sub-Saharan Africa occur in young women and girls, who overwhelmingly bear the burden of the epidemic, according to research done by Professor Ayesha Kharsany from the Centre for the AIDS Programme of Research in South Africa.
In South Africa, one third of young women and girls experience abuse, 60 per cent of young people do not have a matric qualification, and about 70 000 babies annually are born to girls under the age of 18, according to the South African National Department of Health (DoH).
It is being increasingly acknowledged that the contexts in which young women and girls live, which are often patriarchal and violent in nature, need to be addressed in order to make any meaningful impact on reducing new infections, and ultimately ending AIDS as a public health threat to the world.
Treatment and prevention campaigns alone, located in the health department, cannot by themselves address all the systemic drivers that make young women and girls more vulnerable to HIV than their male counterparts: poverty and gender inequality, as well as biological factors. These affect every facet of a girl’s life: her ability to stay in school, choose when to have children, her economic opportunities and the gendered and sexual violence experienced by women that is endemic in South Africa.
It is in this context that a number of initiatives, backed by billions in international aid, have been launched in South Africa. On the face of it, they aim to address the contexts in which young women and girls live in order to help them reach their full potential, including changing long-held perceptions in communities that leave them unsafe from violence and HIV.
It was only two years ago, when Zakwe joined the DREAMS partnership as an ambassador, that she began to receive the psycho-social support she needed 15 years ago.
DREAMS is a global partnership aimed at improving the lives of young women and girls in 10 African countries – with the ultimate aim of reducing the rate of new HIV infections in this group.
Another prevention campaign for young women and girls looking to tackle the societal problems driving their vulnerability to HIV is She Conquers, led by the DoH, launched by then-Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, and most famous for the controversy over a number of billboards commissioned under its name in Gauteng.
A grave historical injustice
In his response to the State of the Nation (SONA) debate on Tuesday 20 February, Ramaphosa, the newly-elected president, said:
“Another grave historical injustice that we need to correct is the economic inequality between men and women.
“It is a task that requires both a deliberate bias in economic policy towards the advancement of women and a fundamental shift in almost every aspect of social life.
“One of the programmes where we have sought to integrate various approaches is the ‘She Conquers’ initiative, which aims to empower adolescent girls and young women to reduce HIV infections, tackle gender-based violence, keep girls in school and increase economic opportunities.
“It recognises how patriarchal attitudes, poverty, social pressures, unemployment and lack of adequate health and other services conspire to reduce the prospects of young women – and then involves these women in overcoming these challenges.
“This is one of the ways we are working to build a nation that is prepared to confront the many different ways in which women are subjugated, marginalised and overlooked – a nation that wages a daily struggle against patriarchy, discrimination and intolerance.”
While Ramaphosa’s words are comforting, as they acknowledge the difficult situations in which young women and girls live, as well as the patriarchal nature of our society, one is left to wonder why so little is known about this important initiative, and how it is working to tackle the multitude of obstacles mentioned.
What is DREAMS?
What are She Conquers and DREAMS exactly? What is happening on the ground to improve the lives of South African girls and young women? Are they reaching their intended audience and achieving their aims? And how can systems of power such as patriarchy, entrenched in society for centuries, be tackled by health-led programmes only in place for a few years?
DREAMS is a global partnership, announced in December 2014, between the United States President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Girl Effect, Johnson & Johnson, Gilead Sciences and ViiV Healthcare, aimed at reducing new HIV infections in girls and adolescent women by 40 per cent by 2017. But the South African arm of the project started late, and the target has been shifted to 2019.
PEPFAR’s Caroline Schneider told Spotlight/Health-e that to achieve this, the “ultimate goal is to help girls develop into Determined, Resilient, Empowered, AIDS-free, Mentored and Safe women” – the tenets the DREAMS name stands for.
Backed by U$385 million [about R4.5 billion], the “ambitious” initiative aims to go “beyond the health sector” to address the social factors that drive young women and girls’ particular vulnerability to HIV, including GBV, poverty, school drop-out, and gender inequality in the form of “economic disadvantage” and “discriminatory cultural norms”.
It was launched in 10 sub-Saharan African countries, with South Africa being allocated U$66 million [about R770 million], when it began operating locally in 2016.
“DREAMS uses multiple evidence-based interventions, including post-violence care, parenting/caregiver programmes, and facilitating access to already available cash transfers and education subsidies,” explained Schneider.
It operates in five districts: eThekwini, uMgungundlovu and uMkhanyakude in KwaZulu-Natal, and Johannesburg and Ekurhuleni in Gauteng, and is facilitated through 20 implementing partners.
What is She Conquers?
Also launched in 2016, She Conquers is a government campaign “aimed to reach adolescent girls and young women aged 15-24 in South Africa who have high rates of HIV as well as teen pregnancies”. Like DREAMS, it aims to do this by looking at the problems in society that make this group particularly vulnerable.
This is according to the DoH’s Dr Yogan Pillay, who said that more than R3 billion has been invested in the programme by three major donors: PEPFAR, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, and the German Development Bank (KFW).
He added that the campaign is being rolled out in three phases, with the first phase being implemented in the 22 districts with the highest HIV burden, “where the need is the greatest”. Based on what is learned in these areas, the interventions will be rolled out nationally.
The five targets to be achieved in the 22 priority districts for the three-year-long campaign are ambitious:
- Decrease new HIV infections in this group by at least 30 per cent, from 90 000 per year to fewer than 60 000 per year;
- Decrease teen pregnancies, in particular under-18 deliveries, by at least 30 per cent, from 73 000 to 50 000;
- Increase retention of this group in schools by 20 per cent;
- Decrease sexual violence and GBV in this group by 10 per cent;
- Increase economic opportunities for young people, particularly young women, by increasing youth employment by 10 per cent.
It is unclear whether progress against these targets will be measured and reported in a way that allows the public and independent experts to hold these programmes accountable in a meaningful way.
There is also much confusion in the public domain as to what the campaign is, whether it is a communication and awareness initiative, or if it involves practical interventions; and if it is adequately responding to the needs of girls and young women: the people it aims to benefit.
The confusion extends to how these initiatives are linked.
Health minister Dr Aaron Motsoaledi told Spotlight that “She Conquers became the South African expression of how to implement DREAMS”.
Schneider said the $66 million South African DREAMS funding allocation falls under the She Conquers umbrella, but that the money is not directly funding the local campaign.
“DREAMS is contributing to achieving the objectives of She Conquers. The US PEPFAR programs in the DREAMS focus districts are in line with the She Conquers strategy, and support She Conquers initiatives in those districts. We can’t speak to the overall She Conquers budget, as this is a Government of South Africa initiative,” she said.
Pillay said She Conquers is a “combination of awareness and practical projects”. But many activists have questioned, firstly, if the campaign is adequately raising awareness in a nuanced way that speaks to the myriad societal ills preventing girls and women from staying safe; and secondly, whether the other interventions are reaching those affected.
She Conquers has been most visible in its communication campaign – particularly in the controversy surrounding two of the billboards it commissioned.
Social media erupted in September last year when a billboard next to the N1 in Johannesburg was erected with the tagline: ‘Who says girls don’t want to be on top?’ In smaller letters underneath it reads: “Complete your matric, study hard and graduate!”
While the DoH rejected claims that the message contained sexual innuendo and therefore failed to address the context of violence and lack of support in which girls are expected to ‘study hard and graduate’, many on social media felt the message to be insulting.
Sexual and Reproductive Justice Coalition founder Marion Stevens said that instead of trying to address the circumstances in which young women remain vulnerable, this kind of messaging only perpetuates the status quo: expecting girls themselves to rise above their trying circumstances, be resilient, and somehow succeed.
“With the black girl emoji attached to it and the sexual innuendo, it reinforces the harmful tropes of black women as hyper-sexualised, and places the burden on young black women to overcome obstacles that are out of their control. How can a young woman stay in school when she has to choose to buy food for herself and others in the household instead of paying school fees? Girls drop out because of a range of factors, such as food, security and transport,” she said.
In this type of messaging, Stevens said, there is no mention of the challenges affecting their ability to stay in school or protect themselves from HIV.
Nicknaming the campaign #HeDecides, Stevens questioned who is actually responsible for constructing the She Conquers messaging, because the voices of young women themselves have been left out.
Long-standing HIV activist Yvette Raphael was involved in the initial conceptualisation of the She Conquers campaign, and said that the initial “consultations went well”.
“It looked like it was going to be an overarching campaign that would support very successful campaigns on the ground already working with women. But that is not the reality now. I don’t even know what to make of it – it’s very confusing,” she said.
Young women left out?
While the campaign was initially conceived as being youth-led, Raphael said that young women have been left out of campaign decisions on more than one occasion.
“I don’t think enough engaging of the target audience is happening and that’s why we are getting messages that are insulting to young women. Girls want to be on top – which young person would say that, outside of a relationship? Which young person can own that tagline?”
Raphael said that young women were asked to vote on a campaign name, but that name was never used; instead, ‘She Conquers’ was chosen, without an explanation as to why the name chosen by the young women was ignored.
Motsoaledi said a young woman from Limpopo was responsible for the She Conquers name, and suggested it to the DoH through social media.
Raphael said the problem is that “old people are thinking they can think like young women”. “She Conquers can only serve its purpose if it’s led by young people, and comes from them.”
She Conquers has set up a youth advisory committee located within the South African National AIDS Council (SANAC), consisting of nine young woman representatives who were elected at a She Conquers bootcamp.
But members of this committee told Spotlight that they do not have much decision-making power.
The executive secretary for the committee, 23-year-old Koketso Rathumbu, said the committee was not involved in formulating the messaging for the communications campaign, including the controversial billboards.
“The DoH is the one who facilitates and decides on the communication plan; and unfortunately, this was not shared with us, and there no clear reasons as to why – we have made a request,” she said.
While Rathumbu had positive things to say about the campaign – for example, that it is getting people talking about these issues, and is reaching some young women with beneficial interventions – she said that it is failing in other areas.
“We are advocating for the visibility of the campaign, over and above the media campaigns and billboards. We are fighting for more engagement and inclusivity at grassroots level, but it has been a challenge; many people in rural areas, for example, are not being reached.”
She also said that if every stakeholder, including various government departments, were “synchronised”, then “She Conquers would be a success”.
“The biggest challenge we’ve had is getting different departments to play a role, not just Health – for example, the Department of Basic Education to go into schools with the She Conquers plan. What we need and don’t have is a synchronised system that integrates all stakeholders.”
This could be why She Conquers is so confusing to the public, and even to the people involved in it. Conceived of and led by the DoH, so far it has failed to adequately integrate all sectors.
Who is in charge?
The Medical Research Council’s Dr Fareed Abdullah (a former SANAC CEO) said that SANAC – as a body designed to facilitate multi-sectoral collaboration between various government departments, civil society and other stakeholders – should be responsible for the running of the She Conquers campaign. It should also be the seat responsible for the coordination of various partners working on HIV prevention in young women under the She Conquers banner, including the DREAMS partnership and others.
Pillay admitted that She Conquers is “supposed to be a programme that links various initiatives under one banner”, but that “coordination is not an easy thing to do”. While Ramaphosa was deputy president, he asked that SANAC take on this role – indirectly acknowledging that the DoH cannot fulfil the mandate on its own.
But the confusion around the programme continues. While Pillay said that handing over the running of She Conquers to SANAC had been done as early as last year, SANAC spokesperson Kanya Ndaki told Spotlight a different story.
“SANAC is not responsible for the overall running of the She Conquers campaign, but this is something we are working towards. We are hosting a summit on young women and girls in March, and will be bringing all the partners involved to reflect on what has worked, so that we can coordinate the response better,” she said.
Ndaki said that the She Conquers campaign has been led by the DoH, but “we want to change that. We want it to be a multi-sectoral response, and SANAC is best placed to provide that multi-sectoral coordination.”
She added that while locating the running of She Conquers has been discussed on various platforms, it has not been finalised; but it is expected to be at the March summit.
Moreover, according to Schneider, DREAMS and its funding “was intended to spark investment globally in adolescent girls and young women programming, with biomedical, structural, and behavioural interventions, using multi-sectoral approaches”.
But when asked if there has been any domestic investment in She Conquers on top of the international aid, Pillay said no – “just the money we have. We have already made it clear from the beginning, from government, the funding will be a reprioritisation of existing funding,” he said.
But Abdullah made the point that the programme – should any impact it makes be sustained – “cannot only be funded by donors, and the South African Government also needs to make significant investments in this programme”.
Will young women have access to PrEP?
Abdullah also said that “one of the key weaknesses of the programme is the very limited offering of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP)”. PrEP consists of a daily dose of antiretroviral medication to prevent HIV infection, and has been shown to be highly effective if taken as indicated.
The World Health Organisation recommends PrEP for young women in areas where the rate of new HIV infections is high; but according to Abdullah, even though this is “one of the most effective interventions” in existence for HIV prevention, “South Africa has limited PrEP to a few pilot sites”.
This is despite the fact that the latest National Strategic Plan (NSP) for HIV, tuberculosis and sexually transmitted infections makes provision for the implementation of PrEP for populations at a high risk of acquiring HIV.
Abdullah has been critical of the NSP, saying it limits PrEP access. The Plan’s targets are that between 2018 and 2022, there should be just over 104 000 new PrEP users. PrEP will be offered to young women, female sex workers, men who have sex with men, and people who inject drugs.
According to Pillay, through She Conquers, PrEP is slowly being rolled out: it was made available to young women at nine university campuses in October 2017. Only 26 people were initiated on PrEP during the first month; after that, the programme was stalled, because universities were closing for the end-of-year holidays. Those who had started PrEP were given a supply for the holidays.
Since February, two more university campus clinics have begun offering PrEP, bringing the total to 11; but the DoH does not have data on new uptake at these sites for 2018.
Pillay said: “During the next six months, PrEP will be made available at some 20 primary healthcare clinics in the 22 She Conquers priority sub-districts.”
The aim is to offer PrEP to between 5 000 and 8 000 young women over the next year.
There are multiple programmes running under the She Conquers banner that are doing important and effective work. But the success of any HIV-prevention campaign that seeks to solve systemic issues in society such as violence and gender inequality will rely on the successful integration of every actor on every level.
To truly help young women and girls in South Africa, programmes will need to put them and their views, voices and suggestions at the epicentre of decision-making. ‘She’ can only ‘conquer’ when ‘she’ is actively engaged and listened to.
In this context, it is important to remember Ramaphosa’s final words on the epidemic of GBV in South Africa during his SONA response:
“It is a social issue that must engage, involve and mobilise the whole of society.We must be prepared, as government, to acknowledge where we have failed our people. Where we have made mistakes, we will correct them.”