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A Suitable Match: Zambian feminists stand up for girl power

Guest bloggers - 10.01.13

Jane Labous ProfileJane Labous is an award-winning broadcaster and photo-journalist. Jane is a press officer for Plan International, covering Africa.

It was in the middle of an east African afternoon, beneath a mango tree shaded from the hazy sun, that I met Gladys Phiri, 32, history teacher, single mother and, it soon became apparent, cheerfully outspoken feminist.

Gladys is that most unconventional of types in this small nation mostly known for its big five wildlife and blazing red landscapes shot through with violet bursts of Jacaranda trees. Divorced (uncommon in Zambia) and happily single (confounding her despairing mother), she successfully supports her small son with her full-time teaching job and is determined to inspire her girl students to concentrate on school and not boys. But her mission - to change deep-rooted village attitudes that dictate that girls should find a husband as quickly as possible - is not an easy one.

Gladys Phiri - history teacher, single mother and feminist"You can become a doctor, a lawyer and have as many university degrees as you want, but if you're not married, you're nothing here," said Gladys, shaking her head ruefully at the absurdity of it all. "Unless you're married, you're still a nobody if you're a woman in Zambia."

For Zambian girls, as for many girls in the West, getting married is everything. Far from being a question of forced early marriage alone, in Zambia it's more complex, encompassing ingrained tradition, a sense of belonging and peer pressure that means girls themselves see marriage as the only successful future. Even career women are widely frowned upon unless they find a suitable match.

"Even my mother's not proud of me because I'm not married!" she laughs. "A home here is only a home, and not a house, when you put a husband and children in it. Even men who aren't married are stigmatised."

Zambian teenagers are no different to rural teenagers across the world; curiosity, boredom and ignorance about sex means girls and boys start playing around early. The marriage dream is further exacerbated by age-old initiation ceremonies, important rites of passage which can encourage children to become sexually active members of their community and lead to them dropping out of school prematurely. Confident with their newfound status, they no longer care for school, considering it child's play.

Mrs Spiwe Chulie, kindly, elderly, softly-spoken, placed her large black handbag on the table in front of her, revealing that she is a para-legal who volunteers for the international children’s rights charity Plan International.

Mrs Chulie runs workshops to teach girls their rights as part of the Young Health Programme: a partnership between AstraZeneca, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Plan International. The global programme runs in 14 countries around the world, helping young people deal with health issues so they can improve their chances of living a better life.

Here in the Chadiza Province of Eastern Zambia, the project is expected to benefit 12,500 girls and boys directly – plus another 44,000 people, including adults, indirectly. Activities include rights workshops, drama group awareness sessions conveying sexual and reproductive health messages and education work with traditional initiators.

Mrs Spiwe reminded me of Miss Marple, deceptively unobtrusive, her benign smile hiding a fierce intelligence. When she spoke it was straight to the point.

"The girls need to be educated - that's why we have these workshops to teach them their rights, which they don't know.”

Convincing girls themselves that education and a career is a worthwhile prelude and accompaniment to marriage is the challenge in Zambia, rooted in education and a recognition of their rights. The extraordinary women I met are moving against the tide and girls are gradually getting the message.
At Gladys' school I met four teenage mothers, all of whom became pregnant without realising the consequences of what they were doing. Now all four are back in school, their boyfriends and their families largely supportive of their quest for an education.

"There's a lot of teasing," admits one, Elizabeth, now 19 with a three year-old daughter. "Lots of people laugh at me that I have a child and I still go to school. But I don't care - I just get on with it!"

But, like any attitude change, it will take time.

Says Gladys:  "Us women who are working, we talk to girls about the importance of school and I try to give them my own experience as an example. I'm a single mother and I'm working to support myself. I tell them that it's better to have an education and then in the future, if you find yourself as a single mother, you can take care of your future and your family, children and parents. Imagine if I wasn't married and I didn't have an education. I'd just be having a reckless life to feed my children. But look at me! I'm so happy the way I am."

Read the full blog by Jane Labous.

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