The 59th session of the Commission on the Status of Women, held this week in New York, was a landmark year for the forum. The high-level international gathering brought together a variety of strong voices from around the world who are advocates for women’s and girls’ rights. Together, they shared stories of success in the face of overwhelming challenges.
One of the voices was Abbigal Muleya. She is the monitoring and evaluation officer for ZUBO Trust, an NGO that supports women and girls in one of the poorest regions of Zimbabwe, the Zambezi Valley.
Muleya said her organization has been working to change the cultural attitudes that permeate the rural community where she lives. She said these traditions do not allow women access to natural resources which would enhance their economic empowerment. However, she shared an example that showed how public education and open discussions with women and men helped break a taboo.
“In 2010, when we started operating in Binga District, [we heard] the challenge where women were not allowed to fish alongside men--and then we embarked on an advocate exercise with women affected and we eventually had women fishing alongside men,” Muleya said.
Muleya emphasized the exclusion of women in the marketplace also affects a young girl’s opportunity for education and economic growth in her community.
The aim of ZUBO Trust is to bring women together so that they can discuss the challenges facing them.
“We have women realizing that there is a gap. By coming together, discussing, they come to a point where they agree that there is a gap that needs attention, and then they come up with possible solutions on how they are going to come out of this situation,” Muleya said.
She further explained that her role is to facilitate the process of how the women are going to fight injustice.
“For example, in particular the fishing project, we realized that there were cultural barriers where the chiefs would say ‘It’s taboo. We can’t have women fishing alongside men.’ We engaged the chiefs together with the women affected and made them realize that what he was considering taboo was nothing—just a social construct. And then later on he understood,” explained Muleyo.
Another social barrier she described concerned men who felt women should not be the breadwinners, leaving them to take care of the family, while the woman is out working.
“The other strategy that we used was to engage and partner with a men-only organization that’s focusing on women’s rights issues called Padare. They came and [empowered] these men and made them realize that gender equality was key for the development of their communities,” said Muleyo.
Muleyo emphasized that changing a cultural tradition does not occur over night. It is a process.
“It’s a back and forth process and then eventually people come to a point that they understand what you are talking about. You get a buy-in from them,” she said.
Muleya added that one of the most important things she learned from this year’s U.N. women’s conference is how to find the best way to scale up already existing community led projects to improve the livlihoods of the communities they are working with.
“Also, to deal even with the cultural challenges that we face as we do our work. And also to create space for the girl child and the young woman in the future,” she said.