“I’ve been living with HIV since birth. Life has not been very easy for me. I used to be shy and could not say anything in class. I always felt alone with very few friends,” says Dunia, aged 18 years.“That is why I’m very happy that our mentor has taught us how to have healthy relationships, develop self-esteem and improve how we communicate with others. My whole life has changed for the better,” she says.
Residing in rural Petauke District of Eastern Province, Dunia is benefiting from the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) supported safe space initiative, as part of the broader Government led National Programme to End Child Marriage in Zambia.
I was able to tell our mentor about my HIV status, the medicine I was taking and the problems I face when taking the medicine. I no longer fear to be laughed at by other children in my village. Not only that, I now have friends and have joined a netball team which we started at our safe space” says Dunia.
Challenges Facing Girls in Zambia
Adolescents, especially girls, face a number of sexual reproductive health challenges in Zambia. Persistent barriers in access to adolescent-friendly health services result in high teenage pregnancy rates (29 per cent), high HIV rates among girls aged 15-19 (8% of girls compared to 5% of boys) and high child marriage rates (31 per cent, reduced from 42 per cent in 2007).
Collaborating to Address Girls’ Vulnerability
In 2013, the Government of Zambia through the Ministry of Chiefs and Traditional Affairs launched a country-wide campaign to end child marriage, focused on two angles: empowering traditional leaders to become champions of girls’ rights in their chiefdoms, and changing laws and policies to ensure that girls are legally protected from child marriage, among others.
Since the launch of the campaign, Zambia has made significant strides aimed at strengthening collective efforts to protect girls’ rights, through both state and non-state actors.
This includes establishment of a consortium of 11 Ministries to respond to the multifaceted nature of child marriage; as well as the launch of the National Strategy to End Child Marriage in 2016 by the Government of Zambia with support from UNFPA, UNICEF, DFID Zambia and the Government of Canada. The Strategy has the ambitious goal of ending child marriage by 2030.
Building Girls “Protective Assets”
When the girls join this programme, they feel safe to express themselves. Believing that real and lasting change begins with girl-centered interventions, the safe spaces have transformed the lives of the many girls and boys
Inunonse Ngwenya is the Young Women Christian Association (YWCA) regional child marriage coordinator in Eastern Province. “Guided by data, YWCA with support from UNFPA and DFID is working to provide 1,935 girls and 365 boys with sexual reproductive health information; life skills; and mentorship through safe spaces facilitated by trained mentors. The community-based programmes also link girls and boys to health, social and economic services; as well as engages community leaders to support the creation of an enabling environment,” she says.
The mentors’ hard work in using safe spaces to reduce girls’ vulnerability to child marriage, teenage pregnancy and HIV is paying off.
“When the girls join this programme, they feel safe to express themselves. Believing that real and lasting change begins with girl-centered interventions, the safe spaces have transformed the lives of many girls and boys,” says Ruth Mwale, a mentor who facilitates 3 safe spaces in Show Ground Community where Dunia lives. “We see critical thinking, confidence, assertiveness, communication, respect for others, and responsible sexual behaviors.” She says.
The benefits of the programme are substantial, evidenced from voices of girls and boys empowered with protective assets – including health, social and economic knowledge and skills
“I’m happy this programme has come to our community. I now know about my rights as a girl, as well as where to seek for help when affected by sexual violence, HIV, and child marriage. I have been encouraged to go back to school and achieve my dreams,” says 17 year old Gertrude, an adolescent mother who was forced to drop out of school while in 8th grade due to pregnancy.