This International Women’s Day we want to champion young women from across the world who are working tirelessly to educate girls in their community about their sexual health and rights and empower them to make their own decisions in life. This is the story of Cecilia.
I’m Cecilia Lesho, a young Zambian woman living in Zambia’s Northern Province where I work with a non-profit organization called Bakashana Basambilile (Let the Young Women Learn, www.bakashana.org). As our work focuses on female empowerment, the promotion of sexual health information and rights is a major priority for our organization. As women, we cannot be truly empowered without a solid understanding of our right to sexual and personal health information and services.
As is the case with most countries across the world, Zambia has some traditional and contemporary beliefs which serve as barriers to women in accessing and understanding their right to sexual health services.
In my country, one of the major restrictions is the lack of relevant and accurate information regarding sex and especially contraception. Through a mixture of traditional and Christian beliefs, many people in our culture believe that unmarried girls have no right to understand or access sexual health services. To complicate matters further, the rural, small-town life which is common for most Zambians means that our community is tight-knit and anonymity is a foreign concept. For this reason, many girls in Zambia are usually not comfortable pursuing or accessing contraceptives or other sexual health services for fear of being judged by the community and out of worry that word might get back to their parents or family members. This shaming and stigmatization have led to so many unwanted pregnancies as well as high rates of HIV/AIDS and other STIs. Additionally, as a “Christian Nation”, Zambia’s lack of separation between church and state prohibits information about sexual health to be taught in schools. This information is regarded to be for “married couples only”, which is a major challenge in the quest for equal access to information when other sources of knowledge are not made available, especially in rural villages. Our communities could benefit greatly if each had a “youth friendly corner” where young women could go freely to get contraceptives and access accurate information about their sexual health.
In villages especially, early marriage is daily news despite (or perhaps because of) the restrictions on information about sex. Additionally, through traditional ceremonies and dancing, girls and young women are taught about sex and how to please a man at a tender age. This disconnect between tradition and the restrictions brought by contemporary religion pose a great challenge for the female youth of today. If a young woman can be married off at 16 then why shouldn’t she also be able to access contraceptives and information regarding sexual health at that age? Many teachers and church elders will say that “teaching a young woman how to use a condom is the same thing as telling her to go out and have sex,” but they still seem surprised when that same young woman falls pregnant!
Our philosophy at Bakashana is that young women should be given the chance to learn and talk about sexual health because if they know and understand the facts, they will be better able to make the right decisions for their bodies and their futures. We teach every girl in our program what a condom is and how to use it, we follow that with a slide presentation showing all of the different kinds of STI’s that one can become sick with. Sexual and personal health is showcased in every one of our leadership workshops because women and girls have a RIGHT to know the truth. Our approach has had a 100% success rate; every girl who has gone through our program has delayed early marriage and pregnancy past the age of 18.
Last but not the least, I understand it’s not easy to change the way we live but at least we can try to change the way with think about other people and ourselves. The major barriers we face in our community with regard to sexual health and rights are the result of cultural norms and gender inequality. We should always exercise equity in all our life endeavors.
With the support of the MTV Staying Alive Foundation, Bakashana conducts village outreaches that combine drama, sports and music with HIV education. At the same time, they hold sexual health and rights workshops for local female elders, who will then share their newly acquired knowledge with young women through traditional initiation ceremonies. Working in this way, Bakashana ensures that young women don’t receive contradictory messages about HIV and that the village speaks with one single voice.