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Schools for Africa: Portrait of a role model for girls and women in Malawi

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©UNICEF Malawi/2007/Sevenier
Single mother and construction company head Zile Shumba is not only putting a new face on the role of women in Malawian society – and giving back to her community, as well.

By Gaelle Sevenier

LILONGWE, Malawi, 11 March 2008 – Zile Shumba is the Executive Director of CKK Building and Civil Contractors, a company hired by UNICEF Malawi to build new classrooms as part of the Schools for Africa initiative.

This single mother of one is also serving as a role model for girls and women in Malawi, not only for her unique position as a company chief, but also for her decision to employ women and provide support for her staff living with HIV.

As a child, Ms. Shumba was fortunate enough to have parents who made school a priority for their 10 daughters and one son. She attended university, then worked for the Malawian Government before going on to attain her certification in construction engineering and architecture. She started her own construction company in 1999.

School renovation project

“When I did my construction certificate, we were only 2 women for 30 men. We really had to push ourselves to make our career in construction, because many men thought our job as women was to be in the kitchen,” Ms. Shumba says.

As the head of her company, Ms. Shumba often works in rural areas where poor roads pose a challenge, especially in the rainy season. This expertise led to her company’s 2007 appointment to a UNICEF project, renovating two schools for the districts of Mulanje, Thembe and Mathimbe in southern Malawi.

“In both schools, the classes were built a long time ago and had never been renovated. Moreover, the number of classrooms was not enough to care for all children,” Ms. Shumba explains. “UNICEF has done a great job building those schools for Africa. The children who were learning outside will now be able to go inside the classrooms. It will have a huge impact.”

Women’s employment is empowering

While building the schools, Ms. Shumba made sure that her company hired as many women as possible to do work at the site. In the end, out of the 72 staff working on both sites, 36 of those hired were women.

“Employing women is a way of empowering them in the village,” Ms. Shumba says. “I have seen a lot of problems in homes. Many women are single, struggling to feed their children. When they earn money, you can make sure it goes directly to their children.”

For most of the young girls in the area, Ms. Shumba is the first woman they have ever seen driving her own car. Beyond that, she is the first female they know who is in charge of directing teams of men and women. The symbolism of that achievement is not lost on her.

“Me going there has up lifted the spirit of many girls who dropped out of school,” she says. “I encourage single mothers to go back to school. Some of them are even inspired to start their own business.”

Extra funds for AIDS drugs

Ms. Shumba’s company also has taken on the responsibility of providing information on HIV/AIDS to its staff members – taking half a day per month to provide them with information on how to protect themselves from the disease.

One challenge for Malawians living with HIV is that the crucial antiretroviral (ARV) drugs cost 500 kwachas ($4) a month, and most people in the rural areas cannot afford them. This problem led Ms. Shumba to decide not only to employ women living with HIV but to provide them with the extra money needed to purchase these ARV drugs.

“It is a way of encouraging them to get treatment,” she concludes, “and it is my way of saving lives.”


 

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