In Tanzania's remote Newala District, adolescent girls are met with unwanted sexual advances on their way to the neighbor's house, to the water well, to the store. They feel forced to give in. Sometimes, they're raped. Girls are even scared to go to school because, they say, some teachers "just want to have sex with you."
The girls of Newala are not alone in their predicament. It reflects the experience of girls in many sub-Saharan African communities, where nearly 60 percent of all people living with HIV are women, according to UNAIDS. Sexual violence – along with early marriage, sex for pay with much older men and multiple, concurrent partnerships – are everyday realities for teenage girls. It's an environment experts say is fueled by numerous factors, including poverty, a breakdown in family and harmful norms that define girls' place in society.
All of this puts 12- to 17-year-old girls in Newala at greater risk of being infected with HIV. Unfortunately, HIV programming for vulnerable children gives little attention to teenage girls, whose needs tend to be eclipsed by those of very young children who lack basic food and care. And because of this, research evidence on adolescent girls' specific vulnerabilities and how to reduce their HIV risk remains insufficient.
Experts at the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) are working to change that.
ICRW was tapped by U.K.-based ViiV Healthcare's Positive Action program to study the variety of ways in which girls are susceptible to HIV in four Newala communities, and then design a pilot project to address the most pressing risks. Working in partnership with local nongovernmental organization Taasisi ya Maendeleo Shirikishi Arusha (TAMASHA), ICRW found that long-held social norms can begin to shift when girls are encouraged to talk about their experiences and when others, including boys, reflect on their own behaviors.
Called "Vijana Tunaweza Newala" or "Vitu Newala," which means "Newala Youth Can," the project in Tanzania adds to ICRW's ongoing research about best practices to serve youth, particularly girls, and provides a model that can be applied in other settings. It also places ICRW among a small subset of organizations globally that focuses on girls – instead of institutions, such as schools – to drive community-based social change.
"Too often, programs targeting vulnerable girls are created without actually talking to the girls," said Jennifer McCleary-Sills, an ICRW social and behavioral scientist who led the project. "What makes the approach ICRW designed for Vitu Newala unique is that it didn't treat adolescent girls as passive beneficiaries of a pre-packaged HIV prevention program. Instead, it empowered girls to define their own needs, lead and interpret research on the issues that affect them and educate their peers with activities they developed."