Economic disparities fuel the HIV epidemic and contribute to other negative health outcomes among young people, especially adolescent girls. Sustainable livelihood programs aim to address these inequalities by providing young people with career training, skills development, and access to capital.  The following is the story of one young woman whose life was dramatically changed by a livelihood program.

In the city of Kisumu, Kenya, in the slum district of Nyllenda, there is a small, blue tin building located on a crowded dirt road. On most days, a woman named Mary sits in the back room of this building, quietly working at her sewing machine.

When Mary was 10, her life fell apart. First, she lost both of her parents in an automobile accident. After that, Mary and her six siblings moved in with her grandmother. The cost of feeding seven extra people was too much for the grandmother, and as the oldest sibling, Mary quickly became the primary caretaker. She was forced to leave school to sell small food items by the roadside. One day, Mary was raped by a group of men after stopping to ask for directions. Then, Mary met an older man whom she believed would support her financially, and she became romantically involved with him. At 18, however, she had a baby, and the man left her.

Her story is not uncommon; many adolescent girls in developing countries are faced with sexual violence, unintended pregnancy, lack of education, and pressure to contribute to a family income. However, Mary’s story took a turn for the better. One year ago, Mary enrolled in a sustainable livelihood program that she says has carried her from “nothing to something.” She learned many new skills and now earns enough wages to support herself and her family, and she is no longer dependent on men. She sells school uniforms and purses and hopes to one day own a tailoring business. Mary’s story demonstrates the tremendous effect economic opportunity can have on the life of adolescents.

Read more about livelihood programs.