“I WAS almost raped last year at my home; it was a really tough time and I became depressed," one teen said, fighting back tears.
“I have no parents my mother died after my birth. I don’t know my father and live with my grandmother,” another added.
“I grew up with my aunt and uncle after my mother died of HIV. My dad is also dead but I don’t know how he died,” said another.
One by one, teenage girls from Soweto shared stories of their lives, most of them involving poverty, hunger violence and death.
“Determined, resilient, empowered, Aids-free, mentored, safe!” the girls chanted, standing in a semicircle in the newly built Choma Dreams Cafe in Kliptown.
This is their “safe space”, where they can share, be comforted, supported and heal from their trauma.
The café is an innovative project aimed at girls and young women to address social problems affecting them, such as HIV, teen sex and pregnancy.
The event this week was hosted by the Charlize Theron Africa Outreach Project (CTAOP) and NGO HIVSA, one of its community-based partners. Theron, a South African-born internationally acclaimed actress and UN Peace Ambassador, hosted the media at the café, much to the delight of the girls, who lapped up her words of encouragement.
“I’m always touched to hear these girls being as honest and raw and willing to share their stories... You guys are incredibly inspiring to me,” she said.
“This project is to reach girls and allow them to talk about things they couldn’t at home. You guys are spearheading the movement of women taking ownership. We see great leadership in these girls, so we have to nurture them,” Theron said.
The Choma Dreams Café project consists of a mobile lab with six internet-connected laptops, where the girls can do research, be counselled on HIV prevention, helped with homework and have a safe place to talk about their challenges.
Through the café, the girls have sessions which include grief and trauma counselling, as well as classes in decision making and entrepreneurship.
The project is funded by the US President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief and CTAOP through the DREAMS Innovation Challenge. Chief executive of HIVSA, Jeann Armstrong, said she felt like “pinching myself” at the realisation of their dream of having the café built, a process which started 18months ago.
“To impact young women and to empower them to be the HIV-free future, we needed to think differently about how we approach and engage, which is where the idea of Choma and the Choma Dreams Café was born. So far, we have seen some great progress, as girls have embraced the Choma Dreams Café as a safe and empowering space.”
Theron added: "Listening to the youth and seeing the amazing work they are doing in their own communities inspires me and gives me confidence the future is bright and we need to invest more in health and support systems for young people.”