While great strides have been achieved in addressing stigma and discrimination against persons living with HIV, it remains one of the major factors of poor uptake of HIV Testing Services in Zimbabwe. The consequences of stigma and discrimination, and often just the fear of these consequences, keep people from seeking HIV information, adopting preventive behaviour, getting tested, disclosing their status, and accessing treatment. The Determined, Resilient, Empowered, AIDS-Free, Mentored, Safe (DREAMS) Project recognizes the need to address such critical socio-behavioural determinants, in support of meeting the Sustainable Development Goal of ending AIDS by 2030.
In her own words, Nokubonga Munikwa, a grade 7 pupil at St Christopher’s Primary School in Gwanda, used to discriminate people living with HIV before she learnt, through DREAMS, about the consequences of stigma and discrimination to the emotional wellbeing of others. Nokubonga acknowledged the major cause of stigma is lack of information as well as myths and misconceptions about how HIV is transmitted and what it means to live with HIV today. “Attending the DREAMS sessions on HIV prevention and gender norms has helped me a lot. Before I was enrolled to the program, my friends and I used to laugh at one of our classmates who was living with HIV because we saw Anti-Retroviral Therapy (ART) medication in her school bag. This affected the girl as she was always all by herself even during break time” – narrated Nokubonga.
Nokubonga’s story is a representation of the DREAMS RISE Project’s efforts to address the structural inequalities that impact vulnerability to HIV, and she is one of the 5440 adolescent girls between 10-14 years in Gwanda District being reached through the DREAMS RISE project which is also based on evidence-based participatory methods to provide individualized, comprehensive HIV care and gender-based violence prevention, treatment, and protection services for the adolescent girls.
Through DREAMS, Nokubonga’s attitude towards people living with HIV have changed as she has learnt not to stigmatize and discriminate others because of their background. Nokubonga is rightly very proud of the part that she has played in making a difference to others. “As my friends continued to laugh and mock our classmate, I saw it important to share with them what I had learnt through DREAMS and also encouraged them to enrol for the sessions as they have helped me to be a better person,” explained Munikwa. She subsequently lost her friendship as she stood against stigma and discrimination, which proved to be a hobby among her friends. Today, Nokubonga is now an advocate for behaviour change at her school and she takes pride in the change she went through as it has also helped her in her academic endeavours.