It was in my second year of university, a course on economic development, that I was formally introduced to the factthat women and girls are disproportionately affected by poverty. However, the idea that poverty is sexistwas not entirely new to me. Growing up in Zambia, I had watched a young girl who lived close to my housestruggle to take care of her three younger siblings while her mother worked as a maid. She could nothave been more than 10 years old when she was charged with these responsibilities; fetching firewood, water and often having to ask neighbors for food when her mother was at work. A few years after I came to the United States to pursue my undergraduate studies, I heard that Vee had been married off. Unable to pay for her secondary education, her parents felt it was the only solution. My heart sank to hear the news. Despite coming from a low income family myself, I had been offered a scholarship to study economics at an American university, an opportunity that opened up my world to a million possibilities. I decided that I was going to pay it forward by helping to change the lives of girls like Vee.
In 2015, I began volunteering in projects to empower underprivileged girls in Zambia with educational opportunities. I quickly learned that for many girls, having access to education was not enough. Some girls in our project missed school for a few days every month because they could not afford sanitary pads. Given that menstruation is considered to be a taboo topic in Zambia, the girls often suffered a silent shame, resorting to using rags and other unsanitary methods to manage their monthly flow. I was inspired to launch an awareness campaign concerningthe need for sustainable solutions to this problem. Through my research onlineI found out that according to UNESCO, 1 in 10 African girls misses school because of her period. I also learned about reusable pads. Made from absorbent fabric and waterproof material, they can be washed and last up to 3 years, making them a truly sustainable solution! I recall feeling nervous about starting the campaign because it was my first time spearheading a community project. However, I received a tremendous amount of support from my community and was able to raise enough funds to purchase reusable pad kits for 100 girls.
Over the past summer, I collaborated with two wonderful Zambian women to conduct training sessions on menstrual hygiene management and distribute the reusable pad kits to underprivileged school girls. We taught the girls that menstruation is a normal part of a woman’s life, rather than something to be ashamed of,and instructed them on proper use and care of their new kits. Hearing them speak about their struggles without access to proper menstrual hygiene products was an emotional experience. However, the bright smiles on their faces when they received their kits gave me a renewed sense of purpose. I realized that I could indeed use my own empowerment as an educated woman to change lives. I have since dedicated my career pursuits to breaking down the barriers to girls’ education and ensuring that they do not fall prey to the sexism of poverty. Acquiring advocacy tools and strong networkwill enable me to further this goal.