Cecilia Lesho, a 2019 Mandela Washington Fellow, was born in a small village in Northern Zambia. During her childhood, Cecilia saw up close the impact of gender inequality, as her mother’s lack of financial independence following a divorce acutely affected her family. To provide for Cecilia and her siblings, her mother started her own business farming and selling meals, a rarity among the women in her community.
This experience sparked a realization in Cecilia. “During that time, very few women [in my village] were working, and most women were housewives. I saw how housewives struggled as they depended on money from their husbands and couldn’t do anything for themselves. In my mind, I was asking: ‘Why are so many women not educated? Why can’t they get a job?’” Cecilia said.
In her own life, Cecilia did not see a future for herself. Education was expensive, and her family couldn’t initially afford it. When discussing the views she held about girls’ education when she was young, Cecilia recalled, “I thought education was only for people from the city, not people from the village.” Without education, she felt like an early marriage was inevitable, saying, “[Marriage] was the only thing I thought I would do because I thought it was the only possible achievement for a woman.”
Eventually, Cecilia’s parents reconciled, and they were able to afford school tuition for Cecilia. Cecilia experienced the transformative impact of education and began to see a brighter future. After graduating, Cecilia decided to chart her own path serving her community.
Looking around her village, Cecilia saw gender inequality as the defining challenge she wanted to address. “I saw women stay in abusive relationships and endure abusive marriages … because society tells them they have to stay quiet,” she reflected. Cecilia wanted to change that. “No matter what it takes, I knew I had to get into a profession that allows me to advocate for people’s rights, especially women and girls,” she said.
Cecilia continued by saying: “I wanted to serve my community and inspire others who didn’t have role models. In rural communities where they didn’t have role models, I wanted to be that role model.”
Cecilia joined a Peace Corps women’s empowerment project in Zambia and used that experience to found the gender equality projects Girls Leading the World and Boys for Change in 2018. These projects work with boys and girls in school to promote social-emotional concepts, such as self- esteem and respect; teach life skills, such as financial literacy; and address how to combat gender inequality and gender-based violence. “We are trying to raise our children to grow to respect women as equal members of society,” she said.
The clubs started small, with just eight members. Cecilia empowered the young people in them to take over and lead while she participated in the Mandela Washington Fellowship in the United States. When she returned to Zambia, membership had doubled. Working with the nonprofit organization Bakashana Basambilile, Cecilia received funding to expand the clubs. With the project’s expansion, her team was able to train guidance counselors and students.
Now, Cecilia’s gender equality programs have grown to 12 in-school clubs and three out-of-school clubs with more than a thousand members across Zambia. “We empower young people with the skills they need to stand up for themselves, especially women who often feel overpowered in Zambia,” she said. Her training focuses on sexual and reproductive health rights, gender equality, entrepreneurship, life skills, and avoiding early marriage and pregnancy in the lives of young women. Cecilia won the 2021 Northern Youths Rise Up and Shine Award for her work in growing Girls Leading the World and Boys for Change.
Follow Bakashana Basambilile on Facebook and connect with Cecilia on LinkedIn.