HIVSA a leading South African not-for-profit organisation offering HIV related services, launched the CHOMA Dreams Cafés concept today at the 2016 International AIDS Conference in Durban. This groundbreaking initiative hopes to provide vulnerable young women between the ages of 15 and 25 with safe, connected and empowering spaces to access health information, social services, life skills training, and support from peers and mentors.

South African adolescent girls and young women face many challenges, including high rates of both HIV infection and teenage pregnancy. Approximately 100 000 girls in South Arica drop out of school each year due to pregnancy. Condom use is at an all-time low with only 36% of people reporting use of a condom every time they have sex and 79% saying that they do not feel they are at risk of contracting HIV.*

"Young women are the most vulnerable to the spread of HIV in South Africa. Every week 2 363 young women aged 15 to 25 are infected with HIV," says Jean Armstrong CEO of HIVSA. "Girls and young women in vulnerable communities have limited opportunities and access to safe spaces and programmes that build their resilience and reduce risk," she adds.

"Community based initiatives often fail to offer youth and girl-friendly programmes and therefore do not attract and retain the interest of this group," explains Armstrong. "We need adolescent-friendly spaces like the CHOMA Dreams Cafés to attract and engage adolescent girls and young women in a meaningful way."

HIVSA intends to set up CHOMA Dreams Cafés at 50 community centres in Johannesburg and Durban that offer DREAMS programmes and with a goal of reaching 12 000 young women over two years. If approved, the Cafés will form part of the DREAMS Innovation Challenge. This initiate is supported by the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), Johnson & Johnson and ViiV Healthcare and aims to help girls in ten sub-Saharan countries develop into Determined, Resilient, Empowered, AIDS-free, Mentored, and Safe women. Along with the DREAMS Innovation Challenge, the CHOMA Dreams Cafés will also be supported by the Charlize Theron Africa Outreach Project (CTAOP), a foundation that aims to invest in young Africans to help them keep themselves safe from HIV.

"Safe spaces are vital for young girls to access services, and too often they simply don't exist," explains Ashlee George, Executive Director of CTAOP. "We are thrilled to support HIVSA on such a groundbreaking initiative," she adds.

The CHOMA Dreams Cafés aim to provide girl-friendly, safe and fun meeting spaces for DREAMS programme activities including: psycho-social support, life and financial capabilities skills, HIV prevention, skills development and access to internet and other resources. The Cafés will be wifi-enabled to provide the girls with easy access to the internet, and also solar powered, which makes them both self-sustaining and eco-friendly.

The Cafés build on the success of CHOMA, a digital magazine aimed at preventing HIV in vulnerable young women. CHOMA provides this group of women with relevant and engaging content about love and relationships, inspiration, health, fashion and beauty - all accessible on their mobile phones. Using Facebook, Mxit, Twitter and Mobi, CHOMA has already reached over one million users in a way that inspires and empowers them to be the next HIV-free generation. Since 2012, HIVSA has partnered with CTAOP and the German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ) in the development of this innovation to make use of technology to reduce HIV risk in young women.

When combined, the magazine and the Dreams Cafés create interconnected online and offline safe spaces for the DREAMS programme. These containers reinforce one another and help to build social assets that empower young women and reduce the spread of HIV.

"By providing young women with a space in which they are safe, engaged and inspired, we know that we have the best chance of reaching them with the support and education that will enable them to remain HIV free," says Armstrong. "We are thrilled to be unveiling this concept at the International AIDS Conference, and we are eager to begin rolling it out to those that most need it most," she concludes.