“You empower a woman, you empower a nation”: four stories to celebrate #IWD2020

This International Women’s Day, we’re profiling four inspirational women from across our programmes. Below are four stories from women who are helping to make a difference in their community, and challenging gender stereotypes in their own way. Whether it’s empowering other women to make informed decisions about their health, or pursuing a career in a male-dominated field, these women’s stories are a testament to the idea that “you empower a woman, you empower a nation”.

Ruth Nyirenda – MAMaZ Against Malaria – Zambia

Ruth works on the MAMaZ Against Malaria (MAM) programme in Zambia, coordinating district activities in Chitambo, one of the districts included in the scale-up. She works closely with District Health teams and facilities to train and conduct community meetings and other project activities. She also line manages a small team of community facilitators.

Ruth says she has seen women take on a more active role in making decisions about their families’ health since the arrival of MAM. Part of the programme focuses on educating families about severe malaria through the training of Community Health Volunteers (CHVs), who are often women.

“In the past most health related issues were handled by either family heads or older men,” she explains.  “Now with the MAM activities women have been empowered to make important decisions on health related matters. When a child is sick, a mother won’t wait for the husband to decide whether to take the child to the facility, she will do so herself. […] Women are now able to conduct community meetings and are now confident to take up roles that were mostly occupied by men.”

Ruth says these changes motivate her in her work. “I get inspiration from women who stand up despite difficulties, poverty or even health to help others and change what others looked upon to be impossible. For them a problem is not a barrier but a point of change.”

Ruth believes that it is important to give women a voice when discussing public health. “Most health related issues affect women. They are the care givers and care takers, so when given a voice change takes place easily… You empower a woman, you empower a Nation.”

So what does International Women’s Day mean to Ruth? “It means a time to showcase what a woman, mother, a leader, a teacher and an inspirer is able to do and the impact she has in whatever she does. A time to be proud to be a woman!”

Rabbecca Chisenga – MAMaZ Against Malaria – Zambia

Rabbecca is a CHV who has been involved in the MAMaZ Against Malaria (MAM) programme since its pilot phase in 2017. As a CHV, she educates her community about the danger signs of severe malaria, and administers a malaria pre-treatment called rectal artesunate (RAS) to those with suspected severe malaria. She also volunteers as an Emergency Transport Scheme (ETS) rider, transporting suspected severe malaria cases to the nearest health facility using her community’s bicycle ambulance. Her community in Serenje District was one of the first to implement MAM, and in 2018 the results from the pilot showed a staggering 96% reduction in child mortality from severe malaria. These remarkable results led to the scale-up of the programme to four more districts.

Rabbecca is passionate about sensitising her community, and her dedication is saving lives. Behind this commitment, however, is a deep understanding of the pain of losing a child. Years ago, before MAM, Rabbecca and her husband were forced to walk 35km over dirt tracks to the nearest health facility, after their own child fell gravely ill. Tragically, by the time they arrived, it was too late. It was only after receiving CHV training that Rabecca realized their symptoms – diarrhea and vomiting – were classic signs of severe malaria.

“I personally lost a child, and I wouldn’t want it to happen to anyone else,” Rabbecca says. “This has motivated me to save the lives of children in the community. When I attend to a child and the child gets better, I feel I have done my job correctly. I have children myself, and I see children being born all the time in my community, so I know I will never stop volunteering as I need to keep saving lives.”

Hajara Saleh Onah – Emergency Transport Scheme – Nigeria

Hajara is a maths teacher from Nasarawa State, Nigeria. In March 2019, on her way to a prenatal visit, she began noticing signs that she might be going into labour. Luckily, she had been told about the Emergency Transport Scheme (ETS) in her community, in which taxi drivers had been trained to transport pregnant women to health facilities when they were in labour. Thanks to ETS, Hajara was able to deliver safely at a health facility, and the experience made her reflect on the importance of giving birth with a skilled birth attendant present. Hajara had needed a surgical procedure before she was able to give birth. “Before I was able to deliver,” she reflects, “I needed an addition so if I was at home, who would have sewed that space?”

In Nigeria, many older women believe that giving birth at home is a sign of strength. Hajara sought to challenge that perception in her community by sharing her story. In the months that followed, she was recruited as a community mobiliser on an immunisation campaign. In her culture, she explains, men are not allowed to enter someone else’s home unless the male head of the household is present. As a woman, she was therefore better placed to disseminate information to other women in their homes.

Every time she encountered a pregnant woman, she would also tell her story and explain the benefits of delivering at a health facility, sharing phone numbers for ETS drivers and promoting the scheme. She says the women she told went on to use ETS themselves, and are happy they did so. “You won’t believe,” she recounts, “last week one of the women [I told about ETS] went into labour and she didn’t want the husband’s mother to know because she knew that she would delay her, so she quickly told me and I told the husband and the husband called the ETS driver, so they quickly rushed over to the hospital and she delivered there”.

Nelima Muyobo – Professional Driver Training Project – Uganda

Nelima Muyobo is one of the female drivers challenging the assumption that truck driving is a male profession. Last year, when Nelima expressed an interest in learning how to drive trucks, she faced a setback because she could only drive automatic cars. However, this did not hold her back and she remained determined to pursue her long-held dream. She went back to a driving school to learn how to drive manual vehicles and returned to the Safe Way Right Way Driver Training Centre in Mukono ready to take on the challenge.

Nelima went on to complete her four-week Heavy Goods Vehicle driving course and currently holds a CM driving licence. She hopes to drive trucks through East Africa and beyond. Speaking about her experience at the training centre Nelima said: “When I first came to the school, I was a little scared and did not know what to expect, but the team was very supportive, the instructors were very professional and patient with me, and this filled me with confidence. I had been driving for a long time but when I enrolled, I realised that I still had so much to learn to be a better driver. I strongly recommend that every driver goes through this training.”

The 36-year-old mother of two encourages more women to take on this opportunity: “There is still a thinking in Uganda that truck driving is for men only, but having done it myself I don’t see what should stop fellow women. I would encourage women who have this passion to use this opportunity and increase their chances of employment.”