Nancy Lakot is an active member of the DREAMS program in Gulu District, Northern Uganda. Photo credit: URC

In 2004, at age seven, Nancy Lakot was taken from her home by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). She witnessed terrible violence during her two years in captivity. Always clinging to the hope of returning home, her wish came true with an amnesty that allowed several abductees to return home as part of a peace agreement.

Back in her community, Nancy had hoped for a better reception. Unfortunately, she experienced stigma and discrimination as anyone associated with the LRA was treated as a perpetrator, no matter the circumstances. Nancy returned to school but suffered bullying and dropped out at primary grade level 6. She became pregnant at age 16, married, and ended up returning to her family home with two children when her marriage ended.

Empowering Young Women

Adolescent girls and young women (AGYW) make up 71% of new HIV cases in sub-Saharan Africa. The DREAMS (Determined, Resilient, Empowered, AIDS-free, Mentored and Safe) program is an ambitious public-private partnership which aims to reduce rates of HIV among AGYW. The program provides a wide range of evidence-based interventions aimed at reducing the risk and vulnerability of acquiring HIV. This includes:

  • Gender-based violence prevention and care for survivors to restore safety;
  • Increasing condom use and availability to prevent infection;
  • Mapping sexual networks to decrease risk in sexual partners; and
  • Offering educational and economic opportunities to safeguard the futures of the young women.

The USAID Regional Health Integration to Enhance Services in Northern Uganda (RHITES-N, Acholi) Activity supports the implementation of the DREAMS initiative in the three districts of Gulu, Agago, and Omoro targeting AGYW ages nine to 24.

A Second Chance

At age 21, Nancy learned about DREAMS from a peer facilitator who was supporting enrollment of eligible AGYW in the program. She enrolled and joined the “Gwok Kwo” (Stay Safe) group. Girls who meet the eligibility criteria, such as history of teenage pregnancy, experience of violence, no or irregular condom use, engaging in transactional sex, and others, qualify to enroll in the program and are placed in smaller groups of between 15-30 AGYW.

The Gwok Kwo DREAMS group has 28 members, ages 18 to 24. A functional constitution guides operations and they have elected officers including chairperson, general secretary, treasurer, and mobilizer. Nancy’s DREAMS group received training on HIV and violence prevention (Stepping Stones curriculum) and financial literacy.

Gwok Kwo also established a village savings and loan association scheme as part of financial literacy training. Active members are allowed to save a minimum of 2,000 UgX weekly with the ability to borrow money at low interest rates to support their personal initiatives. Nancy is an active member of the group.

“Joining DREAMS was the best thing that happened in my life,” Nancy said. “I was lost and couldn’t relate with people. Socializing in the group built my trust and faith in human relations again.”

Nancy started her own business – a stall for selling food items – by taking a loan from the savings and loan association. She also participates in the Gwok Kwo group-based business of tents and chairs for hire provided by RHITES-N, Acholi as one of the DREAMS socioeconomic strengthening initiatives.

Nancy now knows she is HIV negative, and she knows what to do to maintain that status. DREAMS has offered her a new beginning.