Upendo A.’s childhood in Mbeya, Tanzania, was not easy. An orphan, she bounced around to different homes, and was raped for the first time at just nine years old.
Unable to afford food or school fees, she began a series of sexual relationships with older men. “I thought maybe this was normal,” she said. “My body is what I was using to pay money for the rent and the house.”
Upendo's hometown of Mbeya, Tanzania, is a DREAMS district. PEPFAR's DREAMS partnership funds a core package of evidence-based approaches to reduce HIV, including programming to reduce sexual violence and gender inequality.
Tragically, Upendo often found herself in danger with nowhere to turn for help. After being severely beaten at age 11, police were called to Upendo’s home. Although she told police the entire story of the abuse, they did not follow up because her family told them it was a “private matter.” Upendo felt defeated.
Upendo never had a consistent home during her childhood. This was the home where Upendo was living when she was approached by a DREAMS peer educator.
Upendo continued to experience physical and sexual violence and gave birth to a son at the age of 17. Several months later, a peer educator working with the Henry M. Jackson Foundation, an implementing partner of PEPFAR's DREAMS partnership, came to the house where she was staying temporarily.
After asking her questions about her situation, the peer educator encouraged her to come to the health center to get tested for HIV and STIs. She was frightened because she had never been tested and knew she was at-risk, but agreed.
It was the first time she felt someone had expressed interest in her health and personal well-being.
Once she was tested and found to be HIV-negative, she began regularly attending the program for intensive counseling and education. For the first time in her life, Upendo felt empowered and in control of her decisions. A natural leader, she quickly began telling other girls and young women about the DREAMS program.
Today, she is employed as a DREAMS Ambassador, where she helps identify vulnerable girls in similar circumstances and assist them in getting services.
The very first girl that she helped was a young girl who was being sexually abused by her father. “This girl was 9 –years-old and it hurt because I knew this was exactly where I was when that happened to me. It was very difficult for me, but I still did it.” She encouraged the young girl to report her story, and as a result, the man was arrested and convicted.
Unfortunately, experiences like Upendo’s are not uncommon. According to the Tanzania Violence Against Children Survey (VACS), more than 1 in 4 girls experience sexual violence before the age of 18, and 57% experience physical violence. Tragically, only 13% of girls report receiving services for sexual violence.
As a result of the VACS and subsequent National Action Plan, more resources have been mobilized for violence prevention and response.
One example of a successful intervention is the police gender desk in Mbeya, funded by UNICEF and the Henry M. Jackson Foundation, which provides a separate, safe, confidential space for victims to report sexual violence. It was created because victims often weren't reporting since they were scared to come to the police station to share their stories.
Now, with a separate space and friendly, trauma-informed police offers, the gender desk is a well-known resource in the community. The police work with social welfare teams and coordinate closely with hospitals to ensure that victims can access post-rape care services quickly. Using an efficient, multi-sector network, they follow up to ensure the victim is safe and cared for while the investigation and prosecution is ongoing.
As a result of the gender desks, there has been a dramatic increase in reporting and convictions in Mbeya. Mbeya was a model for this strategy and because of its success, it has been replicated in more districts.
Although the gender desks didn’t exist in Mbeya when Upendo was young, she is now working closely with them to encourage girls to report and ensure they get the help they need. “Had I known where to go, I probably would have been rescued much earlier,” she said. Now, she is well-known at the police station by her nickname, “brave lady.”
Through her work with DREAMS and the police gender desks, Upendo has now helped 324 girls receive services, and she doesn’t plan on stopping any time soon.
Upendo is proud of her life now. She has her own home and is raising her son to understand that violence is unacceptable. She is optimistic about their future.
This story was created as part of the Together for Girls partnership's trip to Tanzania. Special thanks to DREAMS and the Henry M. Jackson Foundation.