Committing oneself to something must not always come with incentives, but rather, with true originality emerging from the heart that makes incentives avail themselves to you.
For 22-year-old Bridget Ulalo Shumba, commitment is what defines her voluntary works of empowering adolescent girls and women that has earned her international recognition as well as a role as an ambassador.
“I grew up in a family that values prayer and education as the two pillars of a successful life. Being the only girl —with two brothers—my parents made sure that the education I got was similar to that of my brothers and they emphasised that prayer should always guide us in everything we did. So, I grew up knowing that I and my brothers were the same and whatever they did, I could also do and this mentality has brought me this far,” she explains.
Shumba says this is where her passion for helping young girls and women stems from, because she believes women should not depend on men to feed, clothe or look good as a woman on her own has the potential and capability to do that for herself.
Born on May 22 1994, Shumba started her school at Golden Gates Primary School before proceeding to Joyce Banda Foundation (JBF) in Blantyre where she did her Junior Certificate Education(JCE) and finished with her Malawi School Certificate of Education (MSCE) at Lilongwe Girls Secondary School.
The enthusiastic young woman, who is the last born in a family of three, with the others being Humphreys Junior and Moses, comes from Mwakhundi II Village, Traditional Authority (T/A) Kalonga in Salima. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Sciences with a major in Anthropology, which she obtained from the Malawi Catholic University in 2014.
She is currently studying for her master’s in Youth Development at the African University of Guidance, Diplomacy and International Relations in Lilongwe.
She is a volunteer ambassador for Determined, Resilient, Empowered, Aids-free, Mentored and Safe lives (Dreams), an initiative implemented by the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (Pepfar) Malawi.
The young woman also works as programmes and events coordinator at Music Crossroads Malawi. She is also into farming, which she plans to expand as a business next year.
“My passion for empowering adolescent girls and young women started when I read about the alarming statistics of girls who were forcefully married off and the number of teenage pregnancies were a concern in all corners of Malawi,” she explains.
She says she always thought to herself ‘if young people are forced to get married, then they do not have time to negotiate for HIV testing which puts them at risk of contracting the disease’.
Similarly, she observes that when there are many cases of teenage pregnancies, then, obviously, young people have not been indulging in safe sex, which puts them at further risk of being exposed to HIV.
“Having known that the youth are a great asset a nation can use for its development, I knew I had to do something for the Malawian young women and girls. I came to realise that what they needed were opportunities to boost their confidence and improve their life skills. I knew that young women needed education, right information about different life skills, role models and leadership skills,” she says.
Shumba further says while in school, she told herself she would be among people that would carry such skills to young people.
She spares time to talk to adolescent girls and young women on several topics affecting their well being, apart from being a youth activist.
“I do not only wait to go into the field to meet girls, I make sure to speak to them when I do my work. I make sure to speak to young women about their health, the choices they make every day, their education and their future,” she says.
“With many years of working hard, exposing myself to programmes that empower women and girls and having role models, it finally paid off last year when I was selected to be one of the Dreams ambassadors in Malawi,” she says.
The Dreams initiative works towards minimising new HIV infections among young women and girls in Malawi, Zambia, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Swaziland, Lesotho, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.
She says as an ambassador for the initiative, her role is to connect economic empowerment and building of social assets to the reduction of HIV cases in young Malawian women.
Her role further involves developing human capital for adolescent girls and young women by encouraging them to make healthy sexual choices, participate in community service, invest in their leadership skills and provide them with employment and vocational training.
“I have come to realise that empowering young women and girls to envision a successful, economically stable future and equipping them to nurture their gifts, gives them a sense of control over their lives, thereby, reducing their susceptibility to high risk behaviour such as age-disparate and transactional sex,” she says.
She adds that her commitment has opened up doors for her, which she says has also offered a platform for her to voice out some critical issues that women and youths in the country are facing.
“In March last year, the Graca Machel Trust organised a panel discussion to launch a process with relevant government departments and the United Nations to prepare for the domestication of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in Malawi. I was privileged to be selected as the youth representative at this high profile panel discussion as one of the panellists because of my experience through a training I underwent in Ghana.
“Being part of such a high-profile panel discussion was so important because I was able to voice out concerns of young people in Malawi. I was also able to articulate issues on youth unemployment and sexual reproductive health and rights; education, agriculture and the use of Internet by youth in collecting data that could help government monitor progress of the SDGs. Graca Machel took these for action,” she says.
She also says through Dreams, she has also represented adolescent girls at the 21st International Aids Conference in Durban, South Africa where she also made a declaration on behalf of Malawians.
The youthful activist and advocate, who enjoys cooking, praying, travelling and making friends, is optimistic that Dreams, in partnership with other programmes by government and non-governmental organisations, will yield an Aids-free Malawian generation by 2030.
“I believe Dreams is a good initiative and I am greatly indebted to Pepfar and all its partners in Malawi for truly honouring the dreams of adolescent girls and young women through this initiative. The future of this initiative is one which will truly change the face of a Malawian woman. Most frequently, the face of a woman has been associated with poverty, inability and even diseases,” she says.
She further urges different stakeholders to make bursaries widely available so that poverty should not be a reason girls fail to complete their education.
“It begins with putting God first, making the right choices, humbling yourself to learn from another influential woman and practising what you learn from them,” she says. n