Facilitators and barriers to engaging with the DREAMS initiative among young women who sell sex aged 18-24 in Zimbabwe: a qualitative study

Fortunate Machingura, Joanna Busza, Gracious Madimutsa Jamali, Memory Makamba, Phillis Mushati, Tarisai Chiyaka, James Hargreaves, Bernadette Hensen, Isolde Birdthistle, Frances Mary Cowan

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Adolescent girls and young women (AGYW) are at high risk of contracting HIV and exchanging sex for financial or material support heightens their risk. In Zimbabwe, the DREAMS initiative integrated education and employment opportunities within HIV health promotion and clinical services for vulnerable young women, including those who sell sex. While most participants accessed health services, fewer than 10% participated in any social programmes.


We conducted semi-structured qualitative interviews with 43 young women aged 18-24 to understand their experiences of engaging with the DREAMS programme. We purposively sampled participants for diversity in level of education, type and location of selling sex. We analysed the data by applying the Theoretical Domains Framework to explore facilitators and barriers to engaging with DREAMS.


Eligible women were motivated by hopes of escaping poverty, and their longer-term engagement was sustained through exposure to new social networks, including friendships with less vulnerable peers. Barriers included opportunity costs and expenses such as transport or equipment required for job placements. Participants also described pervasive stigma and discrimination related to their involvement in selling sex. Interviews highlighted the young women's struggles in a context of entrenched social and material deprivation and structural discrimination that hindered their ability to take up most of the social services offered.


This study demonstrates that while poverty was a key driver of participation in an integrated package of support, it also constrained the ability of highly vulnerable young women to benefit fully from the DREAMS initiative. Multi-layered HIV prevention approaches such as DREAMS that seek to alter complex and longstanding social and economic deprivation address many of the challenges faced by YWSS but will only succeed if the underlying drivers of HIV risk among YWSS are also addressed.

Original languageEnglish
Article number257
JournalBMC Women's Health
Issue number1
Number of pages12
Publication statusPublished - 2023


  • Adolescent
  • Female
  • HIV Infections/prevention & control
  • Health Promotion
  • Humans
  • Qualitative Research
  • Sexual Behavior
  • Zimbabwe


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