Empowering girls in rural Zambia

Margaret Nyirongo is well respected in Chongwe district, a poor rural area of Zambia not far from the capital, Lusaka. Not only is she a dynamic businesswoman, this 25-year-old has become an inspiring role model to other young women as the founder of a girls` peer support group.

In an area where youth unemployment, early pregnancies and HIV prevalence are at critically high levels, this kind of support can be life-changing for girls who see few prospects for themselves.

I want to be a good example to other young people and my family,” says Margaret, the eldest of seven children. “I want people to understand that sharing knowledge and skills can bring about desired change in our communities, and that selflessness is key.”

Margaret knows first-hand the risks faced by girls in her area. Like many other bright young women in rural Zambia, Margaret saw her dreams slipping away when she was forced to drop out of school early as her parents could no longer afford to pay for her education. She had always wanted to be a nurse.

“I was devastated when my mother said I needed to stop school,” Margaret recalls. “I felt like the world had crumbled, together with my dream of wearing a nurse`s uniform.”

No longer in school, Margaret became pregnant at the age of 18 and life took a turn for the worse. She says: “The man responsible refused to take responsibility and my mother asked me out of the house.”

It was at this point that a friend of Margaret`s encouraged her to attend a youth meeting in her district, organised by ChildFund Zambia. Here, she heard other young people talk about how participating in the group`s activities had changed their lives.

“They requested me to join their group, but I thought it was all nonsense. I did not realise that the programs they participated in kept them away from vices like illicit sex and alcohol abuse, which are so common in our communities. After a few days, I actually saw positive changes in most of the youth that I knew and this was what made me join the youth group,” Margaret says.

Initially she took part in the various trainings on offer, including life skills, psychosocial support and village banking, which helped the group members set goals, become more confident and able to teach others.

Then in 2010, Margaret was among 200 young people (mostly young women) from Chongwe and Luangwa districts to be trained in banana production and business management through the AusAID-funded Youth Empowerment Project (YEP), managed by ChildFund Australia. The overall goal of this three-year project was to establish sustainable livelihoods for the young participants and increase their incomes through improvement of production, marketing knowledge and access to markets.

“With that support my life changed a lot because I realised that I had the capacity to earn income in a respectful manner,” says Margaret. “Besides, I also learned that it pays to work hard and that when you sweat for your business, sweat turns into sweet!”

Today Margaret is not just leading the YEP group in Chongwe district, she has set up her own banana plantation. She also keeps chickens and is running a grocery store built from the proceeds of the chicken sales.

Her knack for teaching and supporting others has also seen her in high demand with local schools, community groups and other organisations to assist with training children, youth and adults on issues such as HIV prevention and awareness, and women`s rights. This is something Margaret is incredibly proud of.

“It means they have seen something in me,” she says, flashing her big smile. I will always remain grateful to ChildFund for helping me rediscover my purpose and realise that despite my humble education background, I can still make it.”

The Youth Empowerment Project was completed in June 2013. ChildFund Zambia and their local partners continue to provide mentoring, technical and monitoring support. 

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