When Jen Hughes first set foot on African soil back in 2014, it was only meant to be for a few months. And yet, her time as a volunteer with African Impact ended-up changing the course of her life.
Originally from Australia, Jen was steadily climbing the corporate ladder back home. However, following her stint in Africa, she knew she no longer wanted to return to the cut-and-thrust of commercial business.
She joined African Impact’s Livingstone Community project in 2015 and has since worked her way up to the position of Head of Projects for the company.
It was here that she was instrumental in pioneering the Gender Empowerment program at a time when there was limited understanding, few resources, and no previous frameworks.
The fierce determination which got her ahead in business was re-channeled into refusing to let obstacles get in the way of her goal: improve education for Zambian girls and to give them the freedom to make their own choices in life.
Problems become solutions
Statistics for Zambia reveal that only 31% of females have completed primary school and only 8% have completed secondary school. Traditionally, females are expected to be homemakers, mothers, and wives.
The effects of poor education are far-reaching and have consequences that can impact the rest of their life. Women are uninformed on their rights regarding topics such as gender-based violence. Health issues – particularly HIV – are also a huge problem because they do not always have the education or understanding to protect themselves.
Women in Zambia accepted their roles within these deep-seated cultural norms, and sadly, it meant talents and intelligence went unheard and lives were needlessly lost.
“It was really sad. A lot of girls would miss school because they would stay at home to look after brothers and sisters. From working with the local community school, we identified that girls were not a priority. If a family has boys and girls, then the boys will be the ones that get sent to school. As well, there was a lot of early teenage pregnancy drop-outs, but no access to sex education,” Jen explained.
Still, cultural issues had to be respected and Jen appreciated that you could not force a “Western” attitude. For the program to have any effect, it was vital the community was brought into the project.
Her first step was to initiate surveys with key community members before drawing up a program. She found support with the community school’s headmistress, Cathy. As an educated female working in a male-dominated environment, Cathy knew first-hand how important the project could be and was genuinely excited for the difference it could make in the lives of the girls.
Understandably, some people in the community were apprehensive about what their girls would be taught. Some of the men were against it as it went against everything they knew. But having the school’s backing helped to alleviate concerns of some parents.
“The key is we were never going to change the way some adults think. So, the goal was to hopefully change the thinking of generations to come by addressing cultural issues such as gender-based violence and the idea that ‘women must stay home and procreate’. We wanted to have more girls go onto secondary education and even university,” she said.
The curriculum was made totally transparent, with Jen holding presentations for the families so they could see what the sessions would entail and ensure they remained culturally sensitive.
From this, Jen saw room to grow the project even further and the Women’s Group began.
“When we first started, it was solely to educate girls. We thought women were too far down the line. But they felt a need to attend the sessions and learn so they could be mentors in the community and advocates to other parents,” Jen explained.
The women’s group has since evolved to include business classes and educational workshops. It has also resulted in some of the women setting up a tour of their village to teach the volunteers about their life. Some of the women have even gone on to be motivational speakers to encourage others that it is never too late to educate yourself.
The Gender Empowerment project was launched in 2016 and was rolled-out to the community schools using the Adolescent Girl Empowerment Program (AGEP), which had been developed for girls in Northern Zambia.
Still, Jen is the first to admit it was a challenge. Space was an issue, so classes are under a mango tree in the middle of the school, making it awkward when teaching sensitive subjects.
It was also the first time anything like this had happened in the community. The girls were not used to having their own club, topics were lost in translation, and there were varying degrees of education, English abilities, and cultural issues.
From this, girl’s tag rugby club was born. Sports are not part of the curriculum and are not taught in schools because it is seen as something only boys can do. But the after school rugby club challenged the cultural norms. Having the girls out in the local parks playing sports is a visually powerful representation that girls can do the same as boys. The more the community saw it, the more they accepted it.
“Rugby was critical in how successful those first girls were. It started at a time when I was teaching about communication and teamwork and, frankly, the girls were awful. They used to fight and argue, but rugby really taught them to work as a team, communicate better, and respect each other. Plus, it was a healthy outlet for their energy,” Jen said.
Three years down the line and the program is in two schools. Jen has seen its evolution first-hand, particularly with English skills, confidence, and self-esteem.
“This was a challenge as we didn’t know how to measure it. How do you know that our program stopped someone getting pregnant? There have been no pregnancy drop-outs with our girls, but how do you prove that was because of our lessons?”
“I think the transformation in them is my biggest legacy. It was hard work in the beginning, but the investment paid off. Watching them blossom and seeing the difference to when we started is huge. From none of the girls getting up or wanting to present to a group, to totally changing as their confidence grew. Also, watching the interns and volunteers connect with these girls; that is wonderful to watch.”, she enthused.
Easier to prove is education levels with some of the girls getting into good secondary schools, something that had not really happened before.
“There was one girl who wasn’t going to school as she couldn’t afford it. But she started going to every GI class we had, and from that we were able to get her a sponsor. Now she is at secondary school. She is so smart, and you could just see that her life was going nowhere otherwise, that is why I do this,” she gushed.
And, it was not just the females of Livingstone. Jen quickly realized that for attitudes to truly change, the education of boys was key. After all, she explained, if it is one-sided then nothing changes.
The implementation of the boys’ group in 2017 has been a huge success and given the project the credibility and confidence that the classes truly are changing attitudes.
“We did not know how that was going to go down, but if anything, the boys were really dedicated and more enthusiastic than we ever thought possible. It is extremely important to the program as it is educating on the reverse side of things and we try to steer the boys in a different direction.” she explained.
Now that the groundwork has been laid, Livingstone has become a place of opportunity. A key focus for 2019 will be the building of a community center, which will take the girls from lessons under the mango tree and provide them with a safe and private space to learn. The center will also be used for education and business practice sessions with the women’s group.
Jen would also like to see the girls who have already gone through the Girl Empowerment program become mentors and for the center to become the base for a drop-in center. This will allow girls to have continued access once they have finished primary school.
The project has grown from just two volunteers in the first year to becoming one of the most popular projects and a standalone internship. The reason for the success, Jen believes, is the community buy-in and the genuine impact it has on the girls and community as a whole.
“Because Zambia has so many issues with gender equality, you do actually feel like you are making a difference. And it is life-long. It is generations we are changing. The project is well-structured with a good curriculum and we have a holistic approach. This means we are not boxed into one thing and interns and volunteers can bring their own skills,” she said.
“After the #metoo movement, women are definitely speaking up more. However, we would love to have more guys coming out here too to volunteer with the girls. Their voices will add to the credibility that girls can do anything the boys can,” she added.