WINDHOEK - The Ambassador of the United States of America to Namibia, Lisa Johnson recently inspired young women to realise their full potential through the Determined, Resilient, Empowered, AIDS-Free Mentored and Safe (Dreams) project, an evidence-based programme intended to reduce new HIV infections among teens and young women.
Mentorship is one of the key strengths of the Dreams initiative as it recognises that preventing HIV infection in teenagers and young women requires social protection and empowerment along with education and economic skills, as well as access to reproductive health services and family planning.
Dreams mentors are typically close in age to the Dreams girls. This leads to a unique relationship between Dreams mentors and the girls they support that is different to the type of relationship that is formed with an older mentor.
However, having young women serve as mentors has its challenges as many of Dreams mentors may have had little or no mentoring of their own. With a view to providing a support session to some of the Dreams mentors in the Namibian Dreams programme, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Namibia invited the U.S. Ambassador to Namibia to sit down with the young women to talk about her experiences of being mentored and being a mentor.
She spoke to the group about decisions she made during her career, including sharing the advice she had received from her grandmother that “you don’t have to be what people think you should be”.
Johnson spoke about how it took a long time for her to become confident in herself but through experiences such as formal and informal mentoring, she developed the courage to seize opportunities that have led to where she is today.
She discussed how, as a student, she worked in a local shop to earn enough money to pay the enrollment fee for a study programme in government in Washington, D.C. explaining that this was “when I realised that I could do anything”. She particularly encouraged the girls to “create and grab opportunities” for themselves.
When asked what advice the Ambassador would give to her 18-year-old self, she told the group “know that it gets better”, and in response to the question of who had played an influential role in her life, she spoke about a teacher who “encouraged me to think bigger than my own thoughts about my future”.
The Dreams mentors greatly appreciated the opportunity to speak with the U.S. Ambassador, thanking her for being so open and comfortable in talking with them about her experiences. As one mentor said, “it is inspiring to see where we can go.”
The mentoring session with the Ambassador was followed by another session with a social worker based at a local gender-based violence protection unit (a specialised police station that deals with cases of gender-based violence and other similar cases).
The social worker asked the girls to think about the values that guide their life, because “if you as a mentor don’t have values, it is difficult to encourage others”. She also encouraged the girls to have integrity and to stick by the belief of “what I say is what I do”.
The session was closed with a motivational talk from a local radio personality who encouraged the mentors to use the opportunity they have to help the younger women they mentor not to have to walk their journeys alone.
She encouraged the mentors to be instruments in the lives of the girls they support and also recognise that before they can help someone else, they have to help themselves.
The development session was capacity-building in that it helped the young women to reflect on their role as mentors within the Dreams programme.
A key message from all three speakers was how important it is for the mentors to consider their own self-development as well as the development of the women they support.
The speakers highlighted the value of mentorship both as a mentor and a mentee and encouraged the girls to seek support in their own lives, to ensure that they not only help support their mentees to remain HIV negative but also keep themselves HIV free.