In South Africa, weekly gatherings offer women the support and skills they need to decrease their HIV risk
In Lawley, a township south of Johannesburg, South Africa, women gather weekly to discuss their lives and relationships. But, these are not casual meetings; these women are participating in Stepping Stones sessions. Stepping Stones is an evidence‐based training that applies participatory learning approaches to guide participants through a series of topics, including gender, sexuality, HIV, gender-based violence, communications and relationship skills.
Ntombifuthi “Ntombi” Ndungwana has lived in Lawley for most of her life and takes part in this discussion group. She began attending Stepping Stones because she is friends with one of the facilitators. Now, she attends the sessions regularly because of the bonds she has formed with other women. Through Stepping Stones, she has learned more about her own body and how to protect herself. “I didn’t know much about my reproductive cycle, but now I understand how my body works, and I am confident to use contraceptives and condoms,” she stated.
FHI 360’s Capacity Development and Support (CDS) project, which is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)/South Africa under the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), helps implement the Stepping Stones program along with other local partners: Project Empower, Hope Africa and the National Institute Community Development and Management. This work is part of FHI 360’s commitment to DREAMS, a PEPFAR intervention that is designed to reduce HIV among adolescent girls and young women by addressing the factors that increase HIV risk, including sexual violence.
The women who attend Stepping Stones have developed a trusting and supportive environment where they are able to share their experiences and challenges. They speak positively about these sessions. Ntombi said, “Usually I am shy, but I am able to be open with the other women because we can relate to each other’s experiences. I see it as a support group.” Another participant said that “We are empowering ourselves and growing.”
Involvement in Stepping Stones has prompted Ntombi, who has a two-year-old daughter, to be more intentional in her parenting. She said, “I want my daughter to feel comfortable to tell me anything when she is a teenager. I have learned I need to build that open communication even now – I listen to her and ask her what she needs. I read her bedtime stories to make her eager to learn.”
Ntombi has also improved her relationship with her boyfriend. She noted, “After learning about how to deal with anger in one of the sessions, I sat down with him and explained that fighting doesn’t resolve anything and destroys relationships. We agreed that when we are angry, we will separate and discuss the issue after we have taken some time to think about it.”
Ntombi is using what she has learned at Stepping Stones to support other family members and friends, and she is looking forward to new opportunities. “My 15‐year‐old niece is using the information I shared with her on reproduction and hygiene, and I am thinking about volunteering at my church to teach the children about handwashing and other basic health lessons.”
While Ntombi has experienced challenges in her life, she looks forward to new opportunities. She has a sponsor from her church to help her continue her education to become a teacher, and she has new confidence and skills to protect and support herself and her family.
Photo caption: Stepping Stones participants with staff from the National Institute Community Development and Management and the Capacity Development and Support (CDS) project in Lawley, Johannesburg, in May 2017.
Photo credit: Johanna Theunissen