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Photos: In Namibia, a Mask Can Build a Future

For young women in Project HOPE’s DREAMS program, masks aren’t just a tool to slow COVID-19 — they’re the first step to a more secure future.

By Scott Latta

Inside a small workshop in Windhoek, Namibia, 18-year-old Dorin meticulously stitches a small scrap of fabric, with a mask cinched tightly around her face.

COVID-19 cases in Namibia are on the rise, and with schools beginning to reopen, face masks are now mandatory in public. Just over the border in South Africa, the daily numbers are an ominous picture of what could be to come: more than 10,000 new cases are being reported there every day — the worst outbreak on the continent.

Dorin’s fingers guide the fabric past the humming needle of her sewing machine. Soon, she’ll add the mask to a pile with hundreds of others: a simple, yet vital tool to slow the spread of the virus in her community — and, thanks to Project HOPE, the first product for sale in her new business.

sewing group
Dorin, 18, stitches a mask as a sewing teacher looks on. All photos courtesy of Project HOPE’s Namibia team.
sewing group
In Project HOPE’s DREAMS program, young women like Dorin learn job skills that help them earn an income and avoid relationships that increase their risk of HIV.
sewing group
Dorin with the sewing machine she used to start her own business.

Despite having one of the highest HIV prevalence rates in Africa, Namibia has made remarkable progress to slow the spread of HIV, thanks in part to community-focused HIV programs that help build a healthier foundation from the ground up.

As in many places in the world, young women in Namibia are disproportionately affected by HIV, with incidence rates several times higher than men. Project HOPE’s DREAMS program, launched in 2018, is helping change that narrative: lessons on HIV prevention help young women become more educated about the virus, while job skills and financial literacy training help them become more independent and less likely to expose themselves to relationships that increase their risk of contracting HIV.

For Dorin and the six other girls in the workshop, that support has helped them become more aware about HIV — and more confident in themselves.

“Before, I really had nothing much to do. That’s why it was good for me to get involved and explore something new,” Dorin says. “DREAMS empowered me with a new skill. I learn things I never knew about myself.”

sewing group
Ester, 21, works with Monica, her sewing teacher, to measure and cut a mask.
sewing group
The girls sell the masks for $20-25 Namibian dollars each, with a goal of earning enough money to save and build long-term security.
sewing group
Nearly 12,000 girls and young women participate in DREAMS across Namibia, a project funded by PEPFAR, which seeks to combat HIV/AIDS around the world.

COVID-19 has created a new health burden for people at risk of HIV, with vital health services and HIV prevention activities now suddenly on hold. Dorin and the other six young women in the program, however, saw the pandemic as an opportunity to impact their community for good.

After receiving sewing machines, training, tailoring accessories, and fabric, they decided to become entrepreneurs and form their own tailoring business.

Each mask sells for $20-25 Namibian dollars. Their first order was for 300.

At a ceremony attended by the U.S. Ambassador to Namibia, the girls handed the masks over to Project HOPE to be distributed to adolescent safe spaces across the capital, where girls in the DREAMS program meet to discuss the biggest challenges they face. Now, other young women like them can continue on in the program safely, receiving the support they need to avoid HIV, along with the protection they need to stay safe from COVID-19.

“I think it’s important for the community to know how to protect themselves from the coronavirus,” Dorin says. “And wearing a face mask is one of the many ways we can protect ourselves.”

closeup of sewing machine making facemasks
A member of the DREAMS program stitches one of 300 masks to be distributed in adolescent safe spaces across Windhoek.
sewing group
U.S. Ambassador Lisa Johnson watches as a member of the DREAMS program puts the finishing touches on a mask. “The DREAMS program takes a holistic approach — because our emotional, physical, and financial health are all related,” Ambassador Johnson said at the event.

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