Empowering Zambian Women as Reproductive Health Champions

When Mukatmui joined a local YWCA in the country of Zambia, she didn’t realize that decision would save her life.

She grew up in Kaoma District, a rural area about an 8 hour bus ride from Lusaka, the capital. Like many young girls in her community, Mukatmui didn’t learn much about her reproductive health. Like the nearly six of every 10 young girls who are not in school, she didn’t grow up with the very basic health information she needed to know in order to be healthy.

She also thought she had little say in her future. “Traditionally I was taught that whatever a man tells you to do, you have to do it because he is the head of the house,” she says. This included “sex every day when I am not having my monthly period, having a child when a man needs to have one, [and] doing all the domestic work and growing food crops to feed the family.”

Women in Zambia like Mukatmui typically marry early and begin having children right away. Rates of maternal death in the country are high. So are HIV infections. And, with little education about how HIV is transmitted or treated, many living with HIV and AIDS face stigma and discrimination.

Fortunately for Mukatmui, her local YWCA had joined in a project with the World YWCA designed to empower and mobilize young women as sexual and reproductive health advocates. The initiative, supported by the Packard Foundation, includes programs in eight African countries. To date, they have trained more than 500 women to strengthen their leadership skills and build their confidence to speak out about the reproductive health issues that affect their daily lives.

Mukatmui says that the training by the Kaoma YWCA helped educate her about sexual and reproductive health and gave her greater confidence about her rights.

“The YWCA has really changed my life,” Mukatmui says. “I never knew anything about sexual and reproductive health and rights and HIV, but now I have learned that as a woman I have a right to say no to things I do not want to do.”

She also learned how HIV is transmitted and realized that she might be at risk. She had been forced into marriage at an early age. Knowing that her husband had paid a dowry for her, she felt obligated to have unprotected sex without asking any questions. After the YWCA training, she got tested for HIV and found out she was positive.

Despite this new challenge, she remains hopeful about her future—and the future of others living with HIV.

Mukatmui admits that growing up, she like many in her community felt stigma against those living with HIV. “At first I used to discriminate against people who are living with HIV by not listening to them, not caring for them or interacting with them,” she says. But her new knowledge and her own journey living as someone with HIV “made me love and start caring for the sick,” she says.

By giving young women like Mukatmui the voice to tell their stories, the World YWCA is empowering them to improve their own lives and serve as leaders to others. Together, these women are breaking the silence on important issues and rallying community support to advance reproductive health for many more African women.