Field Stories

Students with a Passion for Realising Gender Empowerment

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By Brendan O’Malley, University World News

This article is part of a series on Transformative Leadership published by University World News in partnership with Mastercard Foundation. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.


Tanyaradzwa Chinyukwi, 24, grew up in an environment in southern Zimbabwe, where life was tough and girls were always looked down upon.

She was born in Masvingo and from the age of two to eight lived with her aunt because her mother was teaching in another place and could not afford childcare for her and her three sisters and brother.

But it was her mother who taught her not to accept the widespread belief that only boys have the ability to handle science subjects – and to show what girls can do. “She gave me the motivation, that willpower to work hard, and I wanted my society to see that girls can do just as well,” Chinyukwi says.  

As a result she was one of only two girls selected to join her science class in secondary school, in which there were 13 boys. All the students had to have A’s in their national exams to get into the class, but beyond that criteria boys were picked mostly ahead of girls.

Chinyukwi earned a scholarship that is awarded only to the best students in the whole province to go and take maths, biology and chemistry A-level and obtained good grades.

“That is when I realised my success was not only mine but a success for all the other girls and women in the community and I wanted to show my community that it is not that girls can’t do it; they can, but they need to be given opportunities.”

Change the narrative

So Chinyukwi began to dedicate her life to working for the empowerment of women and girls, “because we need to change the narrative”.

She joined a group called the Girl Empowerment Movement and went into schools to give motivational talks to girls, urging them to “work hard for success, because what boys can do, girls can do as well”.

She was also part of a group advocating for women to have safe access to child birth, raising awareness that mothers shouldn’t be dying while giving birth and seeking access to better health facilities, health advice and medication for pregnant women.

Another issue she worked on was advocacy for child rights, “because so many children are being abused and don’t even know that this is something that should not be happening to them”.

Scholarship support

Chinykwi’s academic achievement and community work landed her a Mastercard Foundation Scholarship through the United States Achievers Program (USAP), a programme that helps academically talented students from low-income backgrounds to attain education in the US and other countries.

She used it to study at EARTH University, Costa Rica, for a degree in agricultural engineering and natural resource management, from which she graduated last year – and she has gone on to do a masters at the University of Florida, funded by the university.

Through the scholarship programme she was invited to Mastercard Foundation’s Baobab Summit in Ghana, where she was inspired by one of the speakers’ definition of transformative leaders as being “someone who leaves a legacy”.

“That propelled me to work more on advocating for gender empowerment and I came up with an initiative to support the education of girl children, mainly in Zimbabwe, because at the time the country was in crisis. People didn’t have access to food, and the threat of starvation forced girls to drop out of school and seek an income by engaging in commercial sex work at 50 cents a session.”

Often these were girls aged 13-18, some of them in families headed by children, where the parents or maybe just the father had skipped the country to look for work and the children were left to fend for themselves or the mother had no support.

“That is why I came up with a girl power initiative to promote girls’ education and help keep girls in school,” Chinyukwi says. In 2016 she applied for and was a global winner of the Millennium Campus Network Challenge and with the award started leading webinars on raising awareness on girl child empowerment, education for girls, and countering stereotypes.

She decided the issue was not how to change the law, since Zimbabwe already had a law on equal access to school, but rather how to address the impact of the economic crisis. So she set up a chicken project, enabling girls to raise chickens and sell them to pay for the $40-$50 per term tuition fees and levies that are charged for going to school.

Chinyukwi has five people helping her, two of them are graduates from EARTH University and three are from Zimbabwe.

A second project they started developing in 2016 stemmed from a visit home in Zimbabwe sponsored by the Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program. While there she saw a woman called Vamanyoni Zimuto in a rural village knocking on doors trying to sell vegetables to villagers in their homes rather than at the market.

Competition is tough

Chinyukwi says she discovered that the competition is tough because middlemen are coming into the market (which is dominated by men) with better produce and demand a low price so that they can still sell at a profit. This was making it difficult for her and her children to survive.

Chinyukwi and her two friends from Zambia later discussed the issue and her friends said the same problem was found in Zambia, where men also dominated the market and women were being taken advantage of.

“So we came up with the idea of Zazi Growers’ Network, with the aim of providing women with nine months of training in aspects of agriculture, for example, how to cultivate different crops, particularly horticultural crops that can be rotated to ensure there is always an income to use for day-to-day living costs. Also, pest management, weed management, climate change, and postharvest practices that reduce crop losses.”

The women are applying their knowledge on a plot of land in Zambia loaned by the local chief for two years.

Another group of women are being given a nine-month course in marketing, branding and packaging.

EARTH University professors in different faculties have been helping devise the courses. For instance, a professor of entomology has been helping with pest management aspects. EARTH University students working on different courses have shared knowledge on weed management and favourable conditions for various crops.

Compelling leadership

The Zazi Growers’ Network won the Resolution Social Venture Challenge at the 2017 Mastercard Foundation Baobab Summit in Johannesburg, a competition that rewards compelling leadership and promising social ventures led by youth.

The young leaders are awarded a fellowship that includes seed funding, mentorship and, crucially, access to a network of young global change-makers to help them pursue worthwhile projects in their communities.

The project started in Zimbabwe but was moved to Zambia due to the economic crisis.

For Chinyukwi a key input has been the ability to meet other young change-makers, because she has learned that when you get people of the same mindset together, who are seeking to transform their societies, they can provide different and complementary ideas to tackle the challenges their communities face.

“The more we keep on working together, the more our societies get better,” she says. “We have different knowledge from different disciplines but most of these things are not really about someone studying a particular discipline but about actually having the passion to bring about change in society.”

Connectivity

Chinyukwi says places like her village in Zimbabwe are no longer isolated from the rest of the world, thanks to the existence of social media platforms and connectivity to the internet.

This has also meant that the Me Too Movement that began in Hollywood in response to the Harvey Weinstein revelations – after actress Alyssa Milano urged any woman who has suffered sexual harassment or assault to tweet ‘Me Too’ to show others they are not alone – has “really helped in giving women the boldness to say no to some of the things that have become normalised”.

She says in Africa the dominant problem is domestic violence and women have been trying to address this is in the manner of the Me Too campaign.

“There are very few women who know that this act is some kind of sexual harassment because it has become normalised. But when things come out like this, it becomes clearer that this shouldn’t happen to you, this is some kind of violence against you.

“I think the turning point has not yet been reached, but we are moving towards it.”



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