At 6:30 am on Saturday morning, more than fifty Swazi women gathered at the Ezulwini Football Stadium for a mentorship walk organized by the Swaziland chapter of Vital Voices. The premise of the event was simple: to bring together bright, talented, young girls and successful professional women.
Despite the early hour and overcast skies, there was a palpable excitement in the air. Mentors wore nametags with their professions written in bold letters, and the young girls were encouraged to approach women with careers they found interesting. Shy at first, the girls stood together in a giggling pack. Slowly, however, curiosity and courage won out, and one by one the girls sought out women to walk and talk with.
Over the course of the two-hour walk, I had the opportunity to meet four incredible young women. They were all on the brink of adulthood – finished with secondary school, and trying desperately to go on to college. One self-possessed young lady told me that she had always known she wanted to be a doctor, while another admitted shyly that her dream was to become a University professor.
In Swaziland, simply having a career as a woman is no small feat. Women have historically been afforded minority status within society, and the current legal, social, and economic systems in the country perpetuate the treatment of women as second-class citizens. As recently as last year, women were legally prohibited from owning land. According to a 2010 report by Amnesty International, most married women are still denied equal status as legal adults and cannot administer property, sign contracts, or conduct legal proceedings without their husband’s consent. This includes getting a bank loan.
Walking with pediatricians, small business owners, and accountants, was not only an opportunity for young women to connect with potential mentors, it was a chance to show them that it is possible to beat the odds, and succeed as a woman in Swaziland.
As we walked, our talk shifted from the generic “what do you want to be when you grow up?” to a deeper conversation about the challenges the girls face and the pressures they feel. Some were shockingly universal – the girls worried about being liked, about being pretty, about pleasing their parents and their friends and their boyfriends. And some of their concerns were rooted in the economic uncertainty, political instability, and the overwhelming prevalence of HIV/AIDS, that are the backdrop to life in Swaziland.
In the country with the highest HIV/AIDS prevalence rates in the world, young women are among the most at risk. The fact that the vast majority of Swazi women are economically dependant on male partners reduces their ability to negotiate safe sex, and currently more than 50% of women in their twenties are HIV positive.
The girls I walked with talked about feeling conflicted. They wanted to help their families (three out of the four planned to work as maids or fruit vendors during the month long Christmas break in order to contribute something to the family pot) but they also wanted to make their own dreams come true. And, while they all had, or wanted to have, boyfriends, they were deeply skeptical of marriage.
At the end of the walk there were hugs, exchanges of email addresses and phone numbers, and plans to meet up for coffee. Not only did the girls who participated get to hear about women who had beaten the odds to become successful professionals, they got to connect with these women on a meaningful level. In the words of the soft-spoken future University professor I was lucky enough to walk with, “it is important to see that dreams are achievable.” And that is what Vital Voices is doing in Swaziland – creating the networks of support that allow the next generation of leaders to believe that “dreams are achievable.”
Jessie Cronan is a Volunteer Consultant with TechnoServe Swaziland
For more online buzz about the mentoring walks that took place all over the world this weekend, check out our Storify page. It’s filled with tweets, pictures, and an awesome poem from a mentee in Swaziland!