DfID in Zambia: Empowering women and girls

Girls in Zambia, where the U.K. Department for International Development supports programs that address gender issues. Photo by: Emily Travis / DfID / CC BY

The United Kingdom recently passed a landmark law that will require all international development efforts to take into account the rights of women and girls.

One of the first countries expected to see the impact of the new law is Zambia, where the U.K. Department for International Development is implementing programs to tackle gender-based violence, the situation of adolescent girls and child marriage, and to provide institutional support for the local ministry of gender.

In a country where girls as young as 10 are sometimes married off and are thus prone to suffer debilitating ailments such as vaginal fistula caused by early pregnancy, developing a constructive relationship with both the Zambian ministries and the tribal chiefs is key to overcoming cultural norms, according to Kevin Quinlan, head of the DfID office in Lusaka.

“It’s not about imposing modernity on tradition,” Quinlan told Devex. “It’s about having discussions on the consequences — and once you have that, the chiefs and traditional leaders begin to think about the benefits for them.”

Below are more highlights from our conversation with Quinlan:

In terms of DfID programming on women and girls in Zambia, what are the main issues that you are currently focusing on?

One is gender-based violence and the other is a program working with adolescent girls. The other programs are working on the themes of early child marriage, and institutional support to the ministry of gender.

The gender-based violence program is working with the United States Agency for International Development and the [Zambian] Ministry of Community Development to establish community centers in some of the district hospitals. In these centers, women who have been victims of gender-based violence have somewhere to go to get counseling and medical treatment when needed. We also work to train police officers in Victim Support units around the country, so that women who come in who have been victims of gender-based violence are handled in a sympathetic and knowledgeable way by police. Another aspect is outreach to traditional chiefs and headmen, to make them aware that gender-based violence is not something that should be acceptable — because in some cases traditional norms may acquiesce to it.

So how do you overcome cultural norms when dealing with traditional chiefs? And how do you build relationships and overcome any reticence on their part to engage long term on issues of women and girls’ empowerment?

Well, it’s not about imposing modernity on tradition. I think it’s about getting leadership from the ministers and from prominent chiefs — and the fact that the chair of the House of Chiefs, which is their assembly, is a female chief definitely helps. It’s about having discussions on the consequences — and once you have that, the chiefs and traditional leaders begin to think about the benefits for them.

So, for example, a starting point might be “We’ve always had girls marrying off early,” but then when you begin to have a discussion about some of the consequences — early teen pregnancy, vaginal fistula, girls marrying off not going to school and therefore losing out on income-earning opportunities later on for their families, and other issues — they begin to join up the dots.

Does this apply to younger men too? How do you engage with them?

Yes, a new element that’s currently being rolled out is to use football and other sports as fora to engage young men to make them more aware of the issue and to try to challenge the norms that they passively take on board with regard to gender-based violence.

And regarding your adolescent girls program — what is the approach there?

The adolescent girls program aims to establish so-called “safe spaces,” where adolescent girls can come together and they're mentored on a range of different issues, including sexual health, the challenges they face growing up and dealing with boys, dealing with pressures to sell their bodies for some pocket money, school fees and other essentials.

The spaces provide them with advice, mentors and a platform for them to ask lots of questions in terms of their own sexuality. And by being more knowledgeable, they’re empowered to be able to [decide] when they want to begin to have sexual relations. In many cases, girls don’t have proper sex education, they don’t know about their bodies, they get pushed by huge amounts of peer pressure into having sex with boys.

They’re also helped to open savings accounts [to give them] some sense of self-worth and some sense of financial independence, [and] mentored and tutored on the importance of staying in school and not succumbing to early sexual encounters, which could lead to pregnancy and leaving school.

And how are you working to end child marriage?

The program working on early child marriage — which has a fairly high prevalence in Zambia, particularly in rural areas — is supporting the work of professor Nkandu Luo, minister for chiefs and traditional affairs and a former minister of health. She has championed and mobilized her chiefs as very powerful agents of change to set the tone on what is acceptable or not — to change the norms in rural villages.

Early child marriage is clearly not good for girls. It often leads them to get pregnant and give birth early at an age where their bodies are not able to handle it, which can lead to conditions such as vaginal fistula, which is reasonably common in rural areas. The effect is usually that it stops their education and limits their chances of becoming more economically empowered.

Later in the year, Zambia is [hosting] a regional symposium on early child marriage … to provide a spotlight on this issue and to galvanize high-level commitment and momentum behind it [before] a London summit in July.

What specific challenges are you facing on early and forced marriage in Zambia, and is the tide actually shifting on this issue?

Zambia is about 40 percent urbanized, so it’s much less of a challenge in urban areas than in rural areas. The more remote and rural an area, the more difficult it is. So there has been some progress, but it’s still a journey that has some way to go in the country.

Women in rural areas of Zambia have an average of about seven children, compared in urban areas — where people have a little bit more money and perhaps a little bit more knowledge — where the average is a little over four. It’s still a big challenge. We have a big program on family planning, and the demand for this is absolutely massive. An important element is providing family planning advice to adolescent girls.

Recently in the program, in a rural area where we’re operating, a mother brought along her daughter who was 13 years old. She wanted her to have access to long-term contraception. She knew that her daughter was sexually active — all of the girls her age were and there was nothing she could do about that — but she didn’t want her to get pregnant, because she knew that this would impair her chances of staying at school, getting an education and a decent job. She wanted a better future for her daughter than she had herself.

You're working to provide institutional support too  is that aimed at mainstreaming gender issues, or focusing on specific areas of intervention?

Yes, the fourth program is institutional support to the Ministry of Gender and Child Development, so that it can provide advice to other ministries in terms of how they can take account of the issues confronting women and girls in their work. This includes the special needs of women on provisions for latrines and toilets for girls in secondary schools.

Are there any elements of the four priority programs that can be considered innovative?

I think the innovation is that in the past — for a lot of the young girls in particular — they had people who were coming to them who were adults twice their age, lecturing them about this and that. I think having mentors who are the same age, or just a little bit older, that are seen as “cool girls” by their peer group has had an important impact.

The second thing is having these safe spaces outside the schools and clinics and churches where kids are a little bit freer to have discussions — particularly about their bodies and sexuality.

The third thing is on some of the research that we’ve done on tracking just how much young girls move around — particularly poorer kids — that in some cases have dropped out because the family get thrown out of their house, or the father gets a low-paying job somewhere else.

How are the mentors empowering girls to become changemakers themselves?

Well, the mentors are selected by the program in terms of their own integrity, their own values, their own charisma. They’re then given training so that they understand the aspects that they’re going to be mentoring their peers on. The girls are then supervised by these mentors, who have a key role to play in following up and ensuring that they stay with the program.

If we’re going to improve the life chances of these girls, it really needs proactive outreach and a real understanding of some of the challenges that they have. In a way, in the West and elsewhere, particularly when working with vulnerable groups, I think we have progressed a little bit more on understanding what are the realities of their lives and how you need to conduct outreach. Here, for adolescent girls in particular, I think that understanding isn’t always there and they therefore get neglected.

What is the impact of the new U.K. gender law on DfID programming — how significant a development is it?

I think it’ll have a very significant impact. If we look back at some of the legislation on international development previously, where we had to ensure that all of our development was 100 percent directed toward poverty reduction, that’s something that is in the mind of every decision maker. So in the same way, the new gender law will make sure that it’s in the mind of every decision maker — and that sends a powerful signal down through the system.

We don’t deliver our programs on our own; we deliver them with a network of other partners and outsourced suppliers in some cases. So we’ll have front of our minds the extent to which gender issues are being taken on board. I hope — and I believe — that we’ve moved very much beyond paying lip service to it. But if anybody’s in any doubt, now it is very clear that this is an issue that needs to be taken on board right from the outset.

And it sends out a powerful example to others. Just as the U.K. is the first G-8 country to reach 0.7 percent of GNI for ODA, we’re the first country to put in place this type of legislation. So it’s a powerful signal and demonstration to others and we’re hopeful that it’ll have an impact.

And with DfID continuing to champion these issues, how bright is the future for women and girls in Zambia?

I think the future is bright. When you go around the country you see fantastically talented women who — despite challenging circumstances — are really devoted to improving the welfare of their families. And when you go into the schools — and now, by the way, most girls are in schools, certainly in primary schools, and the rate is increasing in secondary schools — there are lots of young girls who see a future for themselves, which includes being a mother, but also as a future doctor, lawyer or even a president.

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She Builds is a month-long conversation hosted by Devex in partnership with Chemonics, Creative Associates, JBS International as well as the Millennium Challenge Corp., the United Nations Office for Project Services and DfID.

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    Richard Jones

    In his role as Editorial Director Richard oversees content for digital series, reports and events, leading a talented team of writers and editors, conducting high-level video interviews and moderating panels at events. Previously partnerships editor and an associate editor at Devex, Richard brings to bear 15 years of experience as an editor in institutional communications, public affairs and international development. Based in Barcelona, his development experience includes stints in the Dominican Republic, Argentina and Ecuador, as well as extensive work travel in Africa and Asia.