THE BLOG

Fear Doesn't Live Here: Fighting Inequality And Marginalisation In Sub-Saharan Africa

30/03/2017 12:08 BST | Updated 30/03/2017 12:08 BST

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Mary with some of the young women leaders who joined me in Johannesburg this month. Image Credit: A. Murimirwa

"I have seen girls suffer," Mary told me. "And I knew I had to speak for them."

Mary grew up a rural girl. She was born poor, but when she got the opportunity to go to secondary school with Camfed's support, Mary  excelled, and won a government scholarship to university to study education and become a teacher. It was her first time in the city, at an institution with thousands of more privileged students who had the benefit of an education in well-resourced urban schools.

Yet Mary's lived experience helped her truly understand the fault lines she saw, and fearlessly campaign to fix them. Mary learned that young women at college campuses and in big cities - in Africa and around the world - were facing similar problems to girls in her rural community. Those struggling with their own financial and personal circumstances, already fighting to stay in education, were at grave risk of sexual exploitation by those promising to bridge the financial gap. Mary, as Head Girl at school, had advocated against such relationships, and educated girls about the dangers of HIV/AIDS.

"Girls fear to report their problems," Mary explained to me. "But we have the national Constitution to protect us. I thought, 'Girls have rights and I have an ability. I should fight'."

Mary contested the election for student government in spite of being on a government scholarship and having no money at all. Some told her she wouldn't succeed, but many students, including young men, started rallying around her and campaigning for her. They said, "We'll organise the events; you just come and talk. Women have equal rights in this institution."

"I spoke to more than 4,000 students," Mary told me. "One of the questions they asked me was the issue of girls dropping out. I told them that there is no fear here. A love affair is a choice; you can't force somebody. We will go together to fight this thing. Last year in March I was elected, and I was appointed Deputy Minister of Information & Communication in the Cabinet in April."

Mary took constructive action to solve a problem which could have created further fissures. She knew that lack of student accommodation made first year students especially vulnerable to exploitation. As one of only four women in a student cabinet of 28, she led the lobbying effort.

"We lobbied the President of our country. We put forward our case, made sure we knew our legal rights, and brought statistics about girls who had left college early. The only thing we want here is a hostel, so that girls are not under pressure to sell themselves for accommodation and transport money. We convinced him with data and spoke our issues very clearly."

The President came to the university in May 2016. By July, hostel construction had begun. They are now officially open, offering low-cost student accommodation.

"This suffering has no place at the university now," Mary said. "We organised seminars with lawyers' organisations and the Administration. They told the girls they have rights, they can choose what they want. Not be forced to fall in love. And that brought awareness. Now this thing has no opportunity."

It pains me to think that somebody like Mary - leading a movement at her university which will change the prospects of young women for generations - would have dropped out of school, subject to early marriage, early pregnancy, and a short life of domestic toil.

Mary shares her success with other members of CAMA, Camfed's alumnae network, which will grow to a movement of 100,000 members across sub-Saharan Africa this year. She was one of the 23 extraordinary young women from Malawi, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe, elected leaders and ambassadors for CAMA, who joined our Regional Leadership Summit in Johannesburg this March. We came together to explore how to further develop our network -  a movement for girls' education and women's empowerment. Many of these young women will make history. Mary's story illustrates why I am so sure of that.

At our summit we talked about CAMA leadership transcending the network. Mary said when she was in a big meeting, she'd just imagine she was with CAMA, and everyone was agreeing with her. "If someone could do all this for me, I need to do it for the other girls," she told me. "I have nothing to fear. I need to speak up. A leader can lead people to see light or darkness."

Last week, I received an e-mail from the Skoll Foundation, whose support has been invaluable to CAMA. The theme for the Skoll World Forum in Oxford, Creating Common Ground, immediately made me think back to my meeting with Mary and CAMA's other great leaders, living the words of Sally Osberg, the President and CEO of The Skoll Foundation:

"The work of democracy and justice is never finished. Now is a moment to renew our common cause, to forge bold partnerships, to bridge all that divides. Now is the moment we must reunite with those left behind or spurned. Now is the moment to embrace our common humanity."

Together we will forge ahead to build bridges across the greatest divides.