The UN Commission on the Status of Women convenes in New York on March 1 to look at gender equality and the advancement of women. The ongoing challenge is how to help young women with few choices, like Privilege Zengeni, realise their aspirations.
By Nicole Johnston
Privilege Zengeni is a breathtakingly articulate young woman, with a direct manner and bright smile. She also embodies the challenges facing young Zimbabwean women, and their resilience.
We met when she approached me at a meeting of a cash transfer scheme run by Oxfam partner, Lead Trust, in Bulawayo. Drawn by my video and digital camera, she was shy but came straight to the point: “Can you please show me how that works? I want to be a journalist one day.”
“Life is hard here”
Like many Zimbabwean children and teenagers, Privilege is an orphan. She lives with her aunt and her gogo (granny) in a household with no steady income. They survive by selling vegetables, which they grow in their backyard. Unemployment tops 90% in Zimbabwe, and there are few alternatives. The family’s vulnerability qualifies them for the cash transfer scheme, which provides $25 a month to households identified by community members as being in urgent need of help.
Even in a country where – as the joke goes – “education is the biggest religion”, Privilege’s yearning for learning is unmistakable.“Life is hard here. We need to learn but we don’t have that money for school fees. I know I need to be educated to secure my future, but what can I do?”
Privilege is still in high school, unable to complete her schooling until she can clear her outstanding fees and find money to enrol for Form Four.
She wants to be a health or development journalist so she can speak directly to other girls about the issues that directly affect their lives, particularly HIV and unplanned pregnancies. “As girls it is difficult for us. When we have our periods we don’t even have money to buy sanitary pads. Things can get really hard at home, so girls will look out for a grown-up man who can give them money. But at the end we become pregnant or get HIV and that ‘sugar daddy’ will never come back for you. Girls do hear the messages about HIV prevention but they don’t listen. Maybe they feel they don’t have a choice, so they do those things. I won’t do that because I want a future and I have learned from seeing other people’s mistakes.”
She feels that girls need someone they can talk to, who understands their concerns and speaks their language. “Someone needs to tell our stories.”