Mariental — The Karas and Hardap regions face a high rate of teen pregnancy and gradually the spread of HIV/AIDS - and have to deal with armies of unemployed school dropouts.
United States (US) Peace Corps coordinator, Liz Wise, emphasized that due to an imbalance in problems for girls, the annual Southern Girls Conference was started by the US Peace Corps in 2005.
"HIV infection is higher in girls, according to a 2010 United Nations AIDS study," she said.
Wise explained that girls lack many things in the southern regions, including the lack of access to opportunities, especially for girls in the rural areas.
"Access to opportunities is unequal, thus we are trying to reach girls with lower socio-economic backgrounds to help close the gap," she told New Era in Mariental.
She was speaking during the conference that was held in Mariental over the weekend that included training sessions on gender roles, HIV/AIDS management, career planning, body image, self esteem and standing up for your rights, among others.
In addition, gender-based violence (GBV) is a major issue in the region. The volunteers attempted to provide girls with tools to face these challenges through the conference.
Wise, having lived in Schlip for two years, has firsthand experience with these issues, in addition to her colleagues also living in other rural towns who were exposed to the challenges girls face.
Wise explained that 11 Peace Corps volunteers as well as three Namibian volunteers trained the girls over the course of three days.
The girls (aged 12 to 16) are from different towns within the Hardap and Karas regions, from grades 7 to 10.
"This is the first year that the Ministry of Gender Equality and Child Welfare (MGECW) is involved since we started the conference in 2005," she said.
The conference was fully sponsored by MGECW to the tune of about N$50 000.
Furthermore, the conference used to be largely funded through private donations from the United States, the US Embassy in Windhoek, as well as Peace Corps, according to Wise.
She explained that the girls were selected through an application process where they had to write an essay about who is a woman role model in their lives and what qualities makes this person a role model.
"I have been personally part of the conference since 2010 and I have seen that it has increased interest in leadership, greater self-confidence and a desire to take more active roles for the future," she said.
Wise added that due to getting information on HIV at a young age, the girls approach the disease more critically with the help of the conference, instead of just saying it is bad just because they are told so. "They critically approach it with the thinking of how it actually affects them. They go back to school with a new attitude," she said.
She added that the conference helps to reduce the number of teens getting pregnant and dropping out, in addition to helping share their newly acquired knowledge and skills with community members.
"However, we need to develop a programme where we formally follow up on the progress of the girls in partnership with the ministry," she said.
Wise hoped to spread the conference to all the regions through the ministry, as Peace Corps volunteers may not be in Namibia forever.
Moreover, Peace Corps volunteers run various programmes nationwide, including Camp Glow, which is a national youth leadership camp inclusive of girls and boys. Another is Every One Wants Acceptance (EOWA), in the Caprivi and Kavango regions, also inclusive of girls and boys in cooperation with the Ministry of Education. Camp Glow works with the Foundation for African Women Educators in Namibia.