Girls attend Camp GLOW, a program organized to help educate young women, in Victoria Falls, Zimbambwe.

Give a woman power

by Alexa Moore, Contributor

All around me blankets sparkled with their offered wares; there were outfits made from colorful fabric, stocks of handmade peanut butter, deliciously sticky pumpkin jam and dried vegetables alongside embroidered quilts, livestock and trees, all set for sale. 

“Women’s empowerment is the key to poverty reduction,” proclaimed signs scattered around the venue as women of all ages from the Monze area stood in attendance. This was the fifth annual Agricultural and Craft Show, where women’s groups from surrounding villages came to celebrate their accomplishments and sell their crafts or agricultural products. This display and appreciation of the incredible creativity and resourcefulness of Zambian women is becoming more common, but there is still a long way to go. 

Women and girls are constantly underestimated and forced to stay in the home rather than pursue higher education or a career.

In primary schools, girls are the first to be pulled out if the family cannot afford school fees for all of their children. If they are allowed to stay in school, they are often discouraged from excelling in science and math because those are considered “male subjects.” Girls often hear insults from their teachers insinuating that helping them excel at school is effort wasted because their main purpose is to have children and take care of their husband. 

Still, other obstacles in funding are set in the way as well. In an effort to ensure they can continue attending classes, girls turn to alternative resources.

Finding a “sugar daddy” or an older man to fund their education is common in rural areas. The older men give the young girls money or presents in exchange for sexual favors, exploiting these girls for their youth and economic vulnerability. A toxic relationship, girls who take part in such understandings wield little power and often have no say in negotiation for condom use, resulting in pregnancy/HIV contraction. Power disparity, sugar daddies, early pregnancy and HIV risk are realities in rural Zambia, but they are not guarantees. Female oppression is part of Zambian culture, but cultures are not static; they are ever-changing and evolving.

Within our schools and communities, Peace Corps volunteers are encouraged to start clubs concentrating on female empowerment. We hold an event titled “Girls Leading Our World,” better known as Camp GLOW, annually and invite 13 to 17-year-old girls and a mentor from communities to learn about family planning, independent thinking, HIV prevention and other topics. We also tie-dye, dance, sing and laugh a bunch. These camps are great ways to introduce the idea of beginning, and eventually running a GLOW Club long-term at their schools. It is also a chance for girls to meet others from around their province. 

This year I took one of my Grade 8 pupils, Mevis, to the Southern Province Camp GLOW in August. Mevis was sent to live in Liso Village with a distant relative because her mother didn’t want her. Her guardian refuses to treat her like one of her own children, forcing Mevis to do most of the household chores and to sleep on the floor. However, Mevis is constantly smiling. She has a loud laugh and is always willing to contribute an answer in class. When we talk about her home situation she acknowledges that life is not easy, but she never dwells on it. 

“I know if I work hard this will not always be my life,” Mevis says to me. 

That beautiful optimism is something that she brings to our GLOW Club at St. Mary’s Primary School. She is an active club member who leads energizers and discussions on female empowerment issues. She has such a drive to thrive from her hardships that I know she will succeed.

Zambian girls and women face oppression throughout their life. They are constantly ignored and devalued in their culture, despite the day-to-day evidence of their strength. Cooking every meal over a fire, taking care of a team of children, tending fields, fetching water, washing dishes, and clothing, proves that being a female in Zambia is not for the weak. Their strength manifests not only in their lean muscles but also in willpower and mental tenacity to fight their subjugation. 

Zambian women are no longer tolerating their treatment, they are fighting back. Quietly, or very publicly, they are forming groups, speaking out and taking action. In talking with my BaMaama, or host mother, about the school’s new female head teacher who has done a lot to turn our school around after the corrupt man who served in the position before, she looked at me knowingly. 

“Ah, yes,” she said. “Give a woman power and things will get done.” 

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