* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.Girl empowerment programmes in Zambia aim to raise the age at which girls start having sex, cut teen pregnancies and early marriages, and reduce the girls’ school dropout rates.
North Western Province in Zambia struggles from high levels of poverty with women and girls disproportionally affected because of their low social, culture and economic status in the community. It is not uncommon to see pregnant teenagers or child marriages which further risks girls’ poor social and health outcomes.
It is with this in mind that First Quantum Minerals started girl empowerment programmes at its two mining operations in the heart of Northwestern province - Kansanshi and Kalumbila, which are 650 km and 750 km respectively from Lusaka, the capital city, which include running mentorship camps for girls. The aim of the programmes is to raise the age at which girls start having sex, reduce teen pregnancies and early marriages, prevent sexually transmitted infections including HIV, and reduce the girls’ school dropout rates.
The girl empowerment programmes use the school setting to raise awareness about sexual reproductive health, engaging with key stakeholders such as traditional leaders, the school heads and teachers, and the parents to get support for the girls both within the school and at the community level and also get stakeholder and community buy-in for the programme. So far this year more than 1,700 pupils have been reached with sexual reproduction health messages.
Coupled with this, First Quantum Minerals has set up mentorship camps for girls, with its third annual camp scheduled for this month. The company’s first involvement with camps was in 2011-2012 when it partnered with the United States Peace Corps by supporting the girls GLOW camps. In 2013, First Quantum Minerals conducted its own in-house girls mentorship camp at the Mumbezhi Zambia National Service (ZNS) camp that drew 60 girls from the schools surrounding Kalumbila. The feedback from the girls, the parents and the traditional leadership was very positive.
The mentorship camps aim to raise awareness about issues such as early sexual debut, teen pregnancy and early marriage and low rates of school completion that hinder the girls from achieving their goals. The mentorship programme promotes formal education as the tool for achieving sustainable development. The girls are mentored in skills such as self-assertiveness, negotiation, entrepreneurship just to mention a few. The girls are also exposed to a panel of successful career women from similar back grounds that have made it against all odds.
The 2014 girl’s mentorship camp attracted 100 girls with 20 teachers from schools surrounding Kansanshi and Kalumbila and was held at Trident College in Solwezi.
This year’s girl’s mentorship camp is scheduled for December at Trident college and will be looking at a similar number of pupils and teachers. This year’s camp will include learning business skills and girls will be given business starter packs to enable them, with the support of their guardians, to conduct an income-generating activity to support them with day-to-day grocery needs. The packs will be in addition to the school packs that they are given that include a solar lamp, bag pack, books and mathematical sets.
Trizhidah Mingilishi is an 18-year-old girl from Khankonji community in Kalumbila who attended the 2013 girl’s mentorship camp. She said the camp was an eye opener for her as she became aware of the possibilities that lay ahead of her if she kept her focus on education.
“Abstinence topics and role plays on management of peer pressure encouraged me to focus on my education against all odds of indulging in early sex, early marriages and early pregnancies which is a norm in our community. As you know getting married or pregnant meant making ones parent’s proud in the community regardless of the age of the child,” she said.
“The camp opened my eyes for what I can achieve regardless of my community and family back ground and that is what has kept me going.”
At the time of the 2013 camp she was in grade 9 and is now in grade 11 at Mwinilunga secondary school. Out of 70 friends in her school stream, only three girls managed to get to grade 9 and she is the only one that made it to grade 10, reinforcing the need to run programmes that encourage parents and community leaders to support girls attending school.
“Before the awareness programmes and the mentorship camp, I didn’t know how to plan my home studies. During the camp we were given different strategies for studying and I fully appreciate the solar lamps that were given to us as this enabled me to study at home when everyone has gone to sleep,” said Trizhidah whose dream is to become a nurse and help her community.
Another girl Zobolo Faith, aged 15, is currently in grade 8 after attending the camp in 2013. She claims the girls mentorship camp was a turning point for her.
“I hold the key to unlock my future as a girl child, focusing on my goals for my life on attaining my career,” she said. “I am abstaining from sex (I have to wait for the right time), I study hard, I am committed to my education and I have been concentrating in class.
Faith bemoans the lack of financial independence by women. She cited observing her mother subjected to depending on her father for everything. Her aim is therefore to be financially independent and contribute to the family’s’ wellbeing than relying on a man solely as a source of income.
Gertrude Musunka is First Quantum Mineral's Zambian Health Project Coordinator Gertrude working in the areas of Girl Empowerment, Gender Based Violence, HIV, Malaria etc