Gloria Steinem and me in Lusaka, Zambia. When I had to drop out of school at 14, my community stepped in. Now I work with district officials, schools and communities in rural Zambia to combat child marriage and ensure girls go to school, succeed and become change makers. Photo: Kate Cunningham

That day I knew: Gloria Steinem is one of us

By ALICE SAISHA, Camfed alumna, Zambia

When Gloria came to Zambia to learn about child marriage, I received a hug I will keep as a souvenir forever. I learned that barriers for women have no boundaries, and that Gloria and her friends are on our side — advocating for women’s rights and acting now for girls who need our voice.

I have to be honest. My sisters and I in rural Zambia had never heard of the American feminist Gloria Steinem. Then there was a documentary series on American Viceland TV, called WOMAN with Gloria Steinem. One of the episodes was about a girl called Dialess from my country, married off when she was only 14 years old. Dialess’ mother saw no other way. Her husband had died from AIDS and passed the virus on to her. She needed her daughter to have food and shelter after she passed. The new husband took Dialess out of school. She was so sad, but she was voiceless.

Dialess in the Viceland documentary WOMAN with Gloria Steinem. Her destiny once was mine. Photo: Viceland

I was crying for her when I saw this film, sitting with Amy Richards, the Executive Producer of the series, and Gloria Steinem, who narrated the documentary. We were in Lusaka together on June 29th. Gloria and Amy had traveled with other prominent feminists to meet with young Zambian women who had lived the same poverty as Dialess, and who now contribute their voice to the voiceless.

“I was there because my story could have been Dialess’ story… I was 14 when I dropped out of school because we could no longer afford my school going costs.”

I was there because my story could have been Dialess’ story. My father had passed away, and my widowed mother worked so hard to try to support 10 children on her own. She wanted the best for all of us, and so to supplement her efforts, I worked as a maid after school, and I sold Cassava leaves. It was exhausting and chewed up most of my study time. We lived in an unfinished house. Sometimes we had one meal in a day. Sometimes just a glass of water would do.

I was 14 when I dropped out of school because we could no longer afford my school going costs. I thought that was the end. My dreams of education were shattered. Then my community stepped in. They followed up when I started missing school, and the school based committee provided a scholarship for me through their partnership with Camfed, the Campaign for Female Education. My mother was so happy! For the first time she saw that there were others who could help her protect me. Now I had a boarding place at school, three meals a day, and all my fees were paid. I had psycho-social support, including from the Camfed-trained Teacher Mentor.

In Lusaka I joined 14 other Camfed alumnae to tell my story to Gloria Steinem, Amy Richards and their friends. Photo: Kate Cunningham

When I told my story to Gloria, Amy and their friends, the room was silent. I think they found it hard to connect the life I almost had — a life that Dialess and so many girls in rural communities face — with the woman now standing in front of them.

In turn I was inspired, sitting in a room surrounded by influential women. Amy is a lovable person. She gives room for others to express themselves freely. I found it impossible to believe that Gloria Steinem is 82 years old. She is open and social, and she travels around the world. Gloria listened, asked questions, and I could feel she is one of us. She told us how her mother was determined to educate her two girls when girls’ education was not appreciated in the US. Others in the group spoke of the barriers they faced. They were relating to our experiences, which we always thought are unique to Africa.

“I realized that no matter what your background, when you don’t have a voice, you are still at the margins. As women we have to stand up for our rights.”
Gloria Steinem tells us how girls’ education was not valued in the US when she grew up

I realized that no matter what your background, when you don’t have a voice, you are still at the margins. As women we have to stand up for our rights.

This is why CAMA is so important to me — the Camfed Alumnae Association of educated young women.

CAMA is a support network for us after leaving school. CAMA gives us courage and new ways to give back to our communities. Through CAMA we work to ensure girls become scholars not brides.

14 of us met in Lusaka with Gloria and Amy’s group, but there are 55,000 CAMA leaders across five African countries, and soon there will be 130,000 of us.

Through CAMA I received training and then helped rural women set up businesses. I taught my community members how to save, how to budget, and how they should use their money. Then I obtained a Bachelors Degree in Sociology and now I work with officials and schools in Samfya District to keep vulnerable girls in school. All of us with a background of poverty know what it is like to be excluded. Together we can change the status quo, and make sure every girl goes to school.

Gloria Steinem, Amy Richards and their guests with 14 of my CAMA sisters and me, and Regina Lialabi (on Gloria’s right) and Dorothy Kansanda (third from the right in the back row), co-directors at Camfed Zambia. Photo: Kate Cunningham

CAMA members support many girls with their own resources. I currently support eight girls in school. Like 16-year-old Gladys*, who was going to be married to a fisherman. Her community took action and Camfed now supports Gladys to stay in the school dormitories. During the school break she lives with me. Gladys is so smart. She recently received a Science award.

“They just remind me of me at that age. Hardworking, and they study hard… But these girls also had a lot of trauma at a young age.”

I also look after two girls, who I found in an abandoned house. They are in grade eight and nine. One wants to be a nurse; the other wants to be a pharmacist. They love science and they are very good. They just remind me of me at that age; hardworking, and they study hard. In the week, the girls fight over who gets to cook — always new adventures in food. I told them about the food we had with the visitors in Lusaka. It was delicious, but I did not know half of what I was eating.

“In my community, I have helped change their mindsets. They now understand the importance of education.”

Like many orphans, these girls had a lot of trauma at a young age. Once a week they get counselling from Gladys at the Victim Support Unit. They tell her every experience that is still haunting them. This support is so important. In CAMA we are mentors. We make sure the emotional support is there for the girls. And that they know about their reproductive rights. They can decide when to marry and how many children to have.

We are role models now in our rural communities — and we were so excited to share the day with one of the world’s biggest role models

We are the role models now in our communities. Education has paved a way and given us opportunities to strive high. It shows that there’s a possibility of transformation. In my community, I have helped change mindsets. They now understand the importance of education and the benefits that can come.

And Gloria, she is a role model for millions. She and Amy are telling our story and making change happen. My souvenir from that day was when Gloria Steinem gave me a hug. I didn’t expect a hug from her, it was so nice! That made me understand: Gloria is one of us. She calls herself a ‘hopeholic’. And together we will turn hope into a reality for girls everywhere.

*not her real name

Alice Saisha works as a Camfed District Operations Secretariat in rural Zambia, using her expertise to support vulnerable girls to go to school.

To find out more about CAMA and Camfed, visit https://camfed.org/why-girls-education/leaders-of-change/