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Veronica Wangari

Veronica Wangari is saving money toward her goal of opening her own hairstyling business.

Veronica Wangari has a business plan, a big dream, and a new resolve to protect herself from HIV

Hope lies in Veronica Wangari’s quick fingers. The soft-spoken young woman with the megawatt smile is the fastest hair-braider at her Nairobi beauty school. Her natural flair for hairdressing could be Veronica’s ticket out of the city’s teeming slums—and into a future free from HIV.

What’s the connection between hairdressing and HIV prevention? It turns out that hope can be a powerful shield against HIV. With just a blow dryer, a chair, and basic beauty training, young women like Veronica can launch their own small businesses, giving them economic independence, self-confidence, and a stake in making healthy choices.

In a country with 40 percent unemployment—and where young people make up two-thirds of the jobless—hope can be in short supply. Through a PATH-supported initiative called the Partnership for an HIV-Free Generation, Kenya, we are helping Veronica and 10,000 other Kenyan youth get vocational training and health information to boost their economic prospects and take charge of their future.

“The talent is in my hands”

At the aptly named Diligent College of Hairdressing and Beauty in Nairobi, students work hard to learn the secrets of hair and skin care and much more. They develop written business plans, open bank accounts, and learn about financial management, legal matters, and HIV prevention. Each student knows exactly how many Kenya shillings she needs to save toward the goal of setting up her own beauty shop.

For 24-year-old Veronica, landing a spot at the school was the chance of a lifetime after a string of crushing losses and setbacks.

What’s the connection between hairdressing and HIV prevention? Economic independence, self-confidence, and a stake in making healthy choices.

When Veronica was 11, she and her family were driven from their home during violence after an election. She began begging on Nairobi’s streets to support her family and eventually ran away. Homeless and alone, she contracted tuberculosis and nearly died. She recovered and later gave birth to a son. Her voice drops to a whisper when she explains that her baby died of pneumonia just after his first birthday.

A health worker put Veronica in contact with the Partnership for an HIV-Free Generation, Kenya. Following an interview, she was selected to attend Diligent College, with the partnership subsidizing her tuition. Her training has brought her dream of owning her own business within reach. “The talent is in my hands,” she says.

Empowering women

The Partnership for an HIV-Free Generation, Kenya, launched in 2008 and implemented by our team in Kenya, aims to revolutionize HIV prevention strategies and improve the health of youth aged 10 to 24 years. Central to our approach is a focus on empowering girls and young women, who are four times more likely to be infected with HIV than their male peers.

Dire economic circumstances can leave young women with limited options, increasing their vulnerability to HIV infection, says Rosemarie Muganda-Onyando, deputy country director for our program in Kenya. They may feel the need to take gifts or money in return for sex. They often have less power in their relationships and thus less control over their lives and their sexuality.

By helping them tap into their own talents to support themselves, the partnership is helping young women have “more power, more authority, and more control over their lives,” Rosemarie says.

Investing in the future

Beauty-school owner Esther Kariuki has watched Veronica’s transformation from shy outsider to star pupil with delight. When Veronica graduates, Esther plans to help her get an internship at a high-end salon where she can earn about US$80 per month. That will give Veronica valuable experience, connections, and a chunk of capital to invest in her future business.

“Students gain these skills to be self-reliant,” Esther says, “and they can lift up their entire families.”

Photo: PATH/Eric Becker.