Hadijah Nabukenya, 24, a former sex worker, is one of hundreds of girls who have transformed from prostitution to vocational work after joining DREAMS girl project.
DREAMS, is an acronym for ‘Determined, Resilient, Empowered, Aids-Free, Mentored and Safe.
The project looks out for vulnerable girls who are at risk of acquiring HIV, such as prostitutes, and trains them in hairdressing, tailoring, cosmetology, jewelry making and catering. It aims at keeping girls safe by being determined and busy at work rather than depending on begging money from men, which puts most of them at risk of acquiring HIV.
It is funded under the US government President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (PEPFAR). The programme funding runs through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to Mildmay Uganda.
Nabukenya, who graduated at Uganda Youth Development Link (uydel), says her education stopped in P7 after her father failed to pay school fees due to her stepmother’s influence.
“In my P7 vacation, I used to stay at home with my stepmother’s brother who used to defile me at a tender age. But when I reported him to my stepmother and my father, they all disagreed with me. My father even refused to take me for medical examination to confirm,” she says.
“I was forced to leave home and got married to a man who offered to stay with me. I gave birth to three children in a space of five years because I had no idea about family planning,” she adds.
Nabukenya says her husband abandoned her in a house they were renting in the village without food. She came to Kampala city and joined prostitution.
“Natandika okweyiya olweyiya olwenjawulo (doing transactional sex). I used to sleep with various men in one day to get money. I could sleep with a man that pays my house rent, then sleep with another one for food, another one for my children’s school fees and others could have sex with me without even paying a single penny,” Nabukenya says.
She says during that period, she suffered a lot of sexually transmitted infections, chest pain and stomach pain.
“I tried catering and salon business but failed and the only option to get money was engaging in prostitution. However, I was visited by a colleague who introduced me to the DREAMS girl project,” she says.
Nabukenya says, she first turned down the opportunity to join DREAMS because she had daily customers.
“But when my friend insisted, I joined DREAMS girl programme in Mityana. It was by miracle that I was tested HIV- negative before joining since it was the first condition. I studied tailoring and catering and am now working. I have no regrets and have been able to raise my children’s school fees. I stopped prostitution to keep my HIV status negative,” she says.
Like her, Immaculate Nabachwa, 20, is also proud of DREAMS project where she got hairdressing and cosmetology skills. Nabachwa now owns her own salon business.
“I was also tested HIV-negative and qualified to be enrolled on DREAMS programme in 2017. I have been empowered, stopped begging from men and I am now considered a useful person in the community. I spend all my time on my work and no longer depend on men,” she says.
Sarah Kabasomi, the DREAMS coordinator at Mildmay, Mityana says they give technical support to implementing partners of DREAMS girl project such as UYDEL.
“They bring these girls to the safe places like UYDEL where they learn different vocational skills to keep them busy at work... They mobilise girls who are pregnant, those in schools and those who have been in transactional sex,” she said.
“In this programme, we focus on girls between 10 and 24 years to empower them. It’s a two-year programme and our goal is to make sure that we should have reduced the spread of HIV among this age group by 40 per cent. The reports that are coming out show that we are on the right track,” Kabasomi said last week.
The training is free of charge and over 500 girls graduated at the Mityana and Mubende district projects last week.
Kabasomi said the girls have been given business kits worth Shs 200 million to start businesses. The kits include sewing machines, salon and catering equipment.