ZAMBIA: ‘Our aim is to break societal biases against girls’

CIVICUS speaks about the upcoming International Women’s Day and Zambian civil society’s role in advancing women’s and girls’ rights with Pamela Mateyo and Mwape Kapepula, co-founders of WingEd Girls.

Founded in 2021, WingEd Girls is a civil society organisation (CSO) focused on distributing sanitary materials and teaching girls in underprivileged communities how to make reusable pads, while educating them on personal and menstrual hygiene and mentoring them through post school career paths and choices.

WingEd Girls

How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted on Zambian women and girls?

The restrictions that the pandemic brought, confining people in their homes, greatly contributed to a rise in domestic and gender-based violence (GBV). Compared to 2019, the cases reported in 2020 increased by over 1,000 cases, affecting mostly women and children. 

The pandemic also led to many businesses closing. Many of those were informal businesses dedicated to planning events or catering, thrift clothes shops, restaurants and marketplace stalls. Many were owned and run by women. As a result, households led by women were left in a very vulnerable position, often unable to access basic needs.

At the start of the pandemic schools closed, leading to an increase in rape cases of girls staying at home. By the time schools reopened, many girls couldn’t go back because they were either pregnant or getting married, while others simply dropped out. In addition, focus on COVID-19 reduced access by women and girls to basic healthcare, including maternal care, HIV treatment and sexual and reproductive health care.

How have civil society in general, and WingEd Girls in particular, responded to this situation?

CSOs like World Vision worked in partnership with the government to ensure that while schools were closed children were still engaged in schoolwork, for instance by sponsoring radio and television programmes that taught children basic subjects.

We founded WingEd Girls in the middle of the pandemic to respond to very urgent needs. But this also brought many challenges. The work we do depends on interaction with girls. However, as the number of people that could gather was restricted, it was very hard to reach out to schools and communities. To be able to do our work, we secured bigger spaces and engaged more peer educators to work with smaller groups of girls in breakout group sessions.

The pandemic also made it difficult for us to get the funding we needed to conduct outreach and purchase sanitary materials for distribution. This was partly because prices increased, and also because we had to spend money on additional items, such as sanitisers, masks and handwash soap. Most of our donors also faced financial challenges and couldn’t donate as much as they would like, and this is a challenge we continue to face.

For schools to reopen, a lot of CSOs, church-affiliated organisations such as the Salvation Army and local businesses donated hand sanitisers, masks, handwashing basins and soap. We helped ensure girls had access to basic needs to remain in school.

Civil society also called on the government to lessen restrictions on public interactions so that small businesses could reopen as well.

What are the main women’s rights issues in Zambia and how is civil society tackling them?

Some major women’s and girls’ rights issues in Zambia are GBV, economic inequality and unequal access to quality education.

According to African Impact, only about 31 per cent of girls in Zambia finish primary school, and only eight per cent complete secondary school. This is partly attributed to early marriages and pregnancies, but also to challenges such as lack of access to menstrual hygiene management products and facilities, especially in rural schools.

Low levels of literacy make girls more vulnerable as they grow into women. Most of them don’t understand the rights they have as women, especially those concerning sexual and reproductive health.

This also contributes to a lack of financial independence, which in turn makes women more susceptible to GBV. Limited education means limited access to business opportunities and funding. Many women are not able to draft a business plan, which is required to get a loan. Most lending institutions also require collateral, which most women don’t have, as they typically don’t own property. All this puts them at an economic disadvantage and increases their vulnerability.

There is a cultural trend for women to get just the bare minimum level of education and then become homemakers. Systems are not built to accommodate even the few who may want to take a different path.

Civil society works with government and communities to tackle these issues and bridge these gaps. Many CSOs, including WingEd Girls, support girls in different ways so they stay in school. We have a project to train girls to make reusable pads. The Salvation Army drills boreholes and builds toilets in rural schools. Copper Rose Zambia teaches girls about menstrual hygiene management and sensitises women on GBV and sexual and reproductive health and rights. Other CSOs, such as Africa Leadership Legacy, help women acquire business, financial and leadership skills. These efforts have inspired the government to take further action to support women and girls, and there are now government programmes to empower women, encourage women to establish businesses and provide greater access to education, especially in rural areas.

How can gender equality be achieved in Zambia and what is being done to that effect?

At WingEd Girls we believe that for real change to happen there needs to be an intentional change in direction, especially by the government. There is a need to mainstream gender policies and create awareness among girls and women of their rights.

Some policies to that effect already exist, but institutions seem to lack the motivation to implement them. Other policies are non-existent, and the government must put them in place. Policies around land ownership, access to education, gender-specific healthcare and access to business opportunities and financial assistance should be mainstreamed. Specific budget lines should be established to ensure an equal access to resources. More awareness programmes are needed to help women and girls learn about their rights and ways to access resources or assistance.

As GBV rose, church bodies and CSOs such as Zambia National Women’s Lobby have called on the government to take quick action. The government responded by promising it would establish fast-track courts for GBV cases, put in place policies and legislation to combat GBV and build shelters for GBV victims within communities. They in turn called on civil society to join in efforts to ensure anti-GBV services were made easily available for victims or potential victims.

To keep girls in schools, the government has recently included funding in the national budget to distribute sanitary towels in all schools across the country. But this has not made civil society stop its own work in that regard. WingEd Girls and other CSOs see a potential for partnering with the government and will continue to distribute menstrual hygiene management resources to girls.

To support female-led households, the government has partnered with the World Bank. Through a World Bank-funded project, Girls’ Education and Women’s Empowerment and Livelihood, it will help women access seed money to start businesses and access farm inputs. Lending institutions are also being encouraged to re-evaluate their loan access requirements to accommodate more women.

The International Women’s Day (IWD) theme for 2022 is #BreakTheBias. How have you organised around it in the communities you work with?

For IWD we organised a school outreach in a rural district of Zambia’s Southern Province. We moved it to 11 March because 8 March is a holiday and children will be off school that day. As usual, the event will include menstrual health hygiene talks and career mentorship sessions. We will distribute WingEd kits’, a package containing reusable and disposable pads, underwear, washing soap, and painkillers.

We have partnered with several organisations, including Africa Leadership Legacy, which will conduct talks about leadership and financial skills, and Toy-lab, an organisation led by a group of medical doctors who will talk about menstrual hygiene management. To inspire the girls with business ideas, a local business leader will also come to talk to the girls. Peer educators from Mike’s New Generation Version will also be part of the team.

Our aim is essentially to break the bias that society and communities have against girls, starting with access to education and career choices. In line with Sustainable Development Goal 4, we want to ensure girls have access to quality education despite the various challenges they face, including menstruation. We hope the mentorship we provide will enable them to choose career paths based on their passions and interests.

They shouldn’t have to choose a career because it is deemed suitable or ‘easy’ enough for a girl. What they really need is help to overcome challenges and exposure to information about the variety of career options available to them.

Civic space in Zambia is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with WingEd Girls through its Facebook and Instagram pages.