I was inspired to write this morning, by the fantastic coverage in today's Guardian to mark the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day. It is a public holiday in Zambia. A small, token recognition, but every journey begins with a small step.
I had initially thought of writing about the many phenomenal women that have inspired and motivated me in my life, but perhaps I will list them at the end. Instead, I wanted to explore a little bit about the negative attitudes toward women's development and gender issues in Zambia today.
I live in a country officially listed as one of the poorest and most disadvantaged places in the world for a girl child to be born and grow up in. The lot of a woman in Zambia is not an easy one. It is even harder for girls. To make it to the age of 16 or even 21 means you will have survived many hardships. In Zambia today, many people have become tired of hearing about gender. There are many men (and very many women), who look around the offices and board rooms and on TV and see women CEOs, managers and executives and think that our work is done. Have we come a long way? Yes we have. But, we are far, far, far away from arriving at our destination.
How quickly we forget that the women we see in the offices and on TV are the tip of an anthill. I attended a meeting chaired by one of Zambia's prominent gender activists. There were many representatives from various districts in the country. One senior government official from northern province commented that the fact that she (my boss), was in her position showed that we now had 'gender'. Her response struck me. She said, "Do not look at me as the Executive Director and do not look at me on TV or because I write a newspaper column and think that I represent Zambian women. I am the exception!"
In a population of 13 million, those people who make it to college and into the formal sector are the 5% minority. Of these lucky few, much less than half are women. It baffles me how often we forget this. People ask me why I always talk (including frequently in this blog), about how priviliged I am? This is because in my work, I am always looking at statistics and I see myself in them everyday. What stands out is the larger number on the other side. If we who have been advantaged, think we have 'arrived' and that we can afford to say that "women must now work to be recognised on merit", as though affirmative action has achieved so much (when it has not), then it is a sad day indeed.
I am where I am on merit and perhaps because it was recognised by someone that it is important to give young women an opportunity to progress. I am grateful for that because I know I deserve every reward I have been given and I have earned every promotion or achievement I have received. I am definitely saying that merit is what we should strive for, but to think that we have somehow achieved equality because a bank or two has a female CEO is just plain ridiculous. We would be doing a great disservice to the many other women in this country to whom we have a responsibility to bring up with us as we go forward with our personal and national development efforts.
Yes, it is our responsibility. Intergenerational justice demands it.
When we pick up the newspapers or flick through the roll calls of history, we will see named women and many more unnamed, undocumented and un-photographed women who have fought battles for women who they would never know or see. Those who fought for our independence. Those who fought for a woman's right to vote; to be educated; to work outside the home; for equal pay and benefits. For the right of women to shop and travel and socialise where they wanted. Then are those women who challenged the way we dress and do our hair; who showed us how to sing, and perform, and make money. Those who set up their own businesses and empires. What about the women who reminded the world that it is not right for women to be battered, abused or sexually assaulted; who ensured that perpetrators of such crimes were punished? The women who fought for our health care; who fundraise for research into breast cancer and other diseases that mainly afflict women. Those who entered professions that were male domains and excelled. Those who pushed the envelope so that I would have the right to choose to do it too or not to do it if that was MY choice. I am grateful to those women who write, document and film the plight of women and girls all over the world who need to have their stories heard. Because many years ago women in England took to the streets so women could vote, I am a registered voter; and will make my choice count in our elections later this year.
Phenomenal woman, I salute you.
We owe it to these women to continue in this cause and we owe it to the girl in Chadiza whose parents would rather sell her off in marriage at the age of 12. Even though the Head Teacher knows this is wrong, s/he has no means to offer a definite promise of a better future should the girl not get married. What are the prospects to get out of Chadiza or rather, have a better life right there in Chadiza? It should not be about getting a fancy job in an office, but being empowered and educated enough to live a better life where you are. We know that every year of education a girl child receives adds to her own life expectancy and even more years to the lives of any children she may have. I believe that education remains the window of opportunity for women to better their own lives and ultimately the nation and the world.
Phenomenal woman, I salute you.
In this vein, I am starting a trust with a friend of mine, that will try to encourage women from my village who have 'made it' to give back and help the next girl. Now, it is well known that I am from the Copperbelt, a town girl through and through. But the role models in Chingola town are lining the streets. I am talking about my registered village in Kabompo District, Northwestern Province - where my mother comes from.
This idea was inspired by two trips I have made in my work. One was when I worked in Chadiza, in the Eastern province of Zambia. We had spent a week in a community doing a PRA (Participatory Rural Appraisal), and when we asked the young people who they could point to that came from that community and had gone on to school and finished and then on to college and was working, who they looked up to as a role model, they could only mention one guy who had become a teacher somwhere in the next district. Obvioulsy, this was one small community/ward. But the truth is that I heard the same story in many other communities and districts and provinces as well. The most recent was in Kaoma, where the older women we spoke to were able to name one lady who is a senior civil servant and was very active in the community by coming back to develop the area and encourage others.
This project is not about those who are rich enough to have extra, but ordinary working women who make enough to get by, giving a chance to others. Even though we give support to our own families, there are always those who don't have connections or relatives in town to help them out. This is not a huge NGO, but just young women getting in a car and contribting money for fuel and accommodation to go and speak at schools back home to encourage girls and motivate them with positive role moedls who don't come from rich families but who are just ordinary women trying to do something for other women.
Phenomenal Woman of the last one hundred years, I salute you.
The spirit of ubuntu is this - I am, because you are, because we are. One hundred years from now, may I have lived a life worthy to be counted as one of you.
Phenomenal woman, I salute you!