“Growing up in a remote village of Gem, Siaya County did not give me the best childhood experience”, says Valerie Akoth.
Valerie now 18-years-old, lost her mother at a tender age and had to live the better part of her life with her father.
Her father relied on menial jobs from nearby plantations or whatever job was available. He would save half of his measly daily wages and spent the other on food, but the savings were not enough to pay her post primary education expenses.
“Many are the days we went without meals and basic necessities. We lived a miserable and appalling life,” says Valerie.
Faced with this, she went to stay with one of her aunties. Unfortunately, due to lack of parental care and guidance during her early teenage life, she got involved in a romantic relationship with a man whom she says gave her ‘everything’. She got pregnant and the man abandoned her.
Her early and unplanned pregnancy stirred shame and stigma from her relatives and peers in the village. She had to seek solace from one of her uncles who also failed to provide for her as well as her newborn baby. The relatives resorted to marrying her off. Six months into the marriage, her husband fell ill and died.
She was left with no other option but to do odd jobs to take care of her now two children.
Her long endurance would come to an end when she joined DREAMS (Determined, Resilient, Empowered, AIDS-free, Mentored and Safe) program, an ambitious public-private partnership aimed at reducing rates of HIV among adolescent girls and young women (AGYW) in the highest HIV burden countries.
LVCT Health implements the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC in Kenya) DREAMS initiative to empower vulnerable adolescent girls and young women between the ages of 10 and 24 with the knowledge and skills to make healthy choices and remain HIV-free.
The program has turned her life around through life skills trainings and provision of sanitary towels, pants and soap.
“Joining DREAMS was the best thing that happened in my life. My challenging life as a child and as a teen mother made me feel lost. I have now gained faith in myself and I can now relate well
l with people,” says Valerie.Through the initiative, she and other young women in her group were linked to a Village Savings and Loaning Association (VSLA) fro
m where they have acquired loans to start small income generating activities that has helped them gain financial independence as well as economic empowerment.
The now hopeful young mother of two has since joined a Vocational Training Centre where she is pursuing a course in plumbing. With this basic training, she hopes to expand her current income by opening a plumbing shop as well as offer plumbing services in the region.
“I am a proud DREAMS girl,” she says. “I am proud that I can now contribute meaningfully to my two children”.
As an active member of the DREAMS, she is using her experience to inspire other young girls and women through behavioral change approaches to realize their own dreams and make right choices to be free from HIV infections.
By Collins Kayubs