The First Lady of the United States of America, Dr. Jill Biden, accompanied by the First Lady of the Republic of Namibia, Monica Geingos, are welcomed with a song by men and women in their navy t-shirts and pink striped traditional attire in a room at the Hope Initiatives Southern Africa- Namibia (HISA) project on the outskirts of Windhoek, in the Kilimanjaro informal settlement.
Founded in 2013, HISA works with United States Peace Corps Volunteers to assist with building the capacity of HISA staff in fighting extreme poverty and supporting disadvantaged families to attain socio-economic autonomy. HISA supports women and children living in informal settlements, especially those significantly impacted by the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
Dr. Biden met first with Peace Corps Volunteer, Chris Nottingham, and beneficiaries of the FXB village program. The program targets 100 vulnerable families to receive training and support to reach socio-economic autonomy within three years through strengthening their economic capacities, ensuring food security, eradicating child malnutrition, improving access to medical care and prevention, improving living and hygiene conditions, and enhancing access to education.
Kristofina Petrus is a 27-year-old businesswoman. She bakes at home and sells her goods to her community. She is also a hairdresser. “We used to struggle to feed ourselves but now, we raise money from the business, and we were also trained on how to grow our own vegetables in the garden. I also run my own tuck shop (a makeshift convenience store located in one’s home) on top of baking and doing hair, and it has helped me to sustain myself and my siblings. It was also great meeting the First Lady of the United States today,” she said.
Dr. Biden also met with 19-year-old Kleopas Lazarus, a beneficiary of the gender-based violence (GBV) program at HISA. He joined the program in 2020, a decision he says he is proud of to this day because he has noticed a decrease in the number of GBV cases in his community thanks to the program. “We have a BRO (boys respecting others) program where we target boys and teach them about respecting others and how to treat women and how to keep our mothers and sisters safe,” said Kleopas with a smile. “If community members witness gender-based violence taking place, they come to the center where social workers follow up on the cases,” he added.
The United States Government through the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) also implements programs to support the provision of high-quality HIV/TB prevention and treatment services at HISA. Beneficiaries met with Dr. Biden to share their experiences. This includes beneficiaries from the PEPFAR funded DREAMS program (Determined, Resilient, Empowered, AIDS-free, Mentored, and Safe) and the Prevention from Mother to Child Transmission (PMTCT) program, implemented alongside the Ministry of Health and Social Services.
At HISA, Dr. Biden also had the chance to speak to HIV positive breastfeeding mothers, who receive support to ensure that they do not pass the virus on to their infants. “I am grateful for the support from the American government and the Namibian government because they helped me to stay healthy and helped to keep my children HIV free,” said 44-year-old Monica Shoombe.
Namibia has made great strides to prevent mother to child transmission of HIV. In the last 20 years, the number of new HIV infections among children under the age of one has decreased by over 90%. Currently, it is estimated that all women who know their HIV status and are pregnant (estimated at around 9,000 women each year) are currently on HIV treatment to prevent HIV transmission to their children.
The DREAMS program reaches over 13,000 vulnerable adolescent girls and young women (AGYW) at the community level in Windhoek, including at the HISA site. DREAMS activities include “safe space clubs” where AGYW are supported to build social assets and peer support networks, as well as receive mentorship services from a trained mentor from the same community. At the center, AGYW also participate in “No Means No” training, which teaches AGYW how to assert themselves particularly in the context of gender-based violence.
Brave Illena is a 27-year-old businesswoman who completed the “safe space club” under DREAMS. Since being a member, Brave has gained skills in HIV prevention, accessed health services, completed a mentorship program and financial literacy training. Brave, and nine fellow AGYW were selected to enroll in the DREAMS intensive economic training. During the visit, Brave had a conversation with Dr. Biden where she spoke about her experience. “DREAMS has taught me a lot. It opened my mind to business, and I have even gone back to school. I am so thankful to the DREAMS program, especially for the business startup toolkit that I used to start
my catering and cleaning business,” she said. Today, Brave’s business, “Pass Not” employs five AGYW.
As the visit came to a close, Dr. Biden thanked HISA as well as First Lady Monica Geingos for hosting her and said that she would take the good work that PEPFAR is doing in Namibia back to leaders in Washington D.C.