passion – to excel in the fight against violation of women and girls rights in particular, Gender Based Violence, and women’s right to healthRebecca Tendai Chirenga
Educationist, high school teacher and college lecturer by profession, mother to 3 girls and 2 boys, grandmother to six adorable children, friend, mentor and Women’s Rights activist – Meet Rebecca Tendai Chirenga
Rebecca’s impressive mental strength and a can-do attitude motivated her to establish Women in Communities (WICO) almost a decade ago in Zimbabwe, to promote women’s issues and rights. Her courage and attitude had early beginnings.
When she was just ten, a young Rebecca got the opportunity to travel far away from home to study at a boarding school. Her father, a policeman, had retired pre-maturely due to an injury while on duty. Her family moved to rural Zimbabwe after this to save costs. The ten-year old girl from a place called Fort Victoria (present day Masvingo) journeyed alone, courageously by train, to an unfamiliar setting many miles away to complete her education.
At 34, facing widowhood and the prospect of bringing up five young children (the youngest was three years old) single-handedly, Rebecca prepared to meet the gauntlet thrown at her. Years later, five grown women and men achieved enough in their own right and stand as a testimonial to her perseverance.
Women in Communities Zimbabwe or WICO as it is known was established in 2009 to advocate for the wellbeing of women and girls and facilitate opportunities for them to acquire knowledge, values, attitudes, and skills needed to improve their livelihoods and capacities to adjust to changing conditions. WICO has grown in stature and reputation today under the leadership of Rebecca, and the support of the six other women that she co-opted into her vision and voyage from the beginning.
Rebecca and I met virtually when I helped ‘Women in Communities’ Zimbabwe (WICO) to prepare a fundraising proposal this year. We were introduced to each other by Chezuba, a website that facilitates volunteers like me and community based NGOs to benefit mutually. Rebecca and I continued to be in touch after the completion of my assignment, due to my interest in WICO’s work and most importantly because I am inspired by Rebecca’s commitment and professionalism.
Here is an excerpt from the interview I did with Rebecca about the journey of WICO –
Madhavi–It has been more than a decade since WICO was set up. What was your first project?
Rebecca – WICO’s initial focus was on Maternal and child health, and Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission of HIV (PMTCT), especially due to a high prevalence of HIV/AIDS in those days. We wanted to help pregnant mothers and babies, to reduce maternal and new-born deaths, and HIV transmission to babies. Mothers died during child birth in Zimbabwe due to largely preventable causes. Zimbabwe had an unacceptably high level of 725 maternal deaths per 100 000 births (2007 study). Skilled attendance at birth declined from 73% in 1999 to 60% in 2009 and delivery in a health facility went down from 72% to 60% over the same period. Women were caught up in a vicious cycle. Information on health was inadequate, funds allocated for health delivery insufficient and most importantly access to health care especially for vulnerable groups was poor due to high user fees, heavy transport costs and long distance to health facilities. WICO mobilised resources to address these issues.
Madhavi – You seem to be very proud of this first initiative of WICO. Why?
Rebecca – There were many important programmes after this but I still hold this as one of the best. The project model was simple and addressed many of goals in one stroke.
To solve the problem of distance, WICO constructed a 30-bed dormitory (shelter) near one health facility. Mothers could arrive there and wait for their delivery ahead of time. This reduced the risk of delayed access to health care especially for high risk pregnancies and reduced the possibility of unsafe deliveries at home. Mothers could stay in the shelter as long as they needed to without incurring boarding costs. They had to however provide their own food. WICO helped promote institutional deliveries to save mothers and infants and provided health information and critical knowledge about the PMTCT programme to the women while they were in the shelter.
High emergency transport costs to the health centre were eliminated due to this. We established a similar shelter in another local health centre in one other district. Both facilities were handed over to the Ministry of Health and Child Care.
Madhavi – Your mission clearly focuses on women and their rights. Do you think men have a role to play in promoting women’s rights and wellbeing?
Rebecca – Yes, without doubt. Zimbabwe is a patriarchal society. You need men’s support if programmes for women are to succeed. For example the PMTCT program required that both partners be tested for HIV to help with monitoring pregnancy at an antenatal clinic. The women would voluntarily test and receive counselling but the spouses were reluctant.
WICO introduced an approach known as Gender Transformative programming, to get men involved through community workshops and by offering incentives to attract them to the programme. As a result, the PMTCT programme improved by a significant margin. 100% of babies were delivered at the health facility HIV negative, even when parents were HIV positive.
We also involved men to address the issue of Gender Based Violence. We trained men to become “Male Motivators”. They became champions for addressing other men in hot spots such as beer halls and mining sites. WICO’s initiative was awarded the Netherlands embassy award of Gender Champion in 2019.
Madhavi – You also received another award in 2019, this one for a nutrition project. Could you elaborate on what project it was?
Rebecca – Yes that Project too was very timely and important. WICO received the award for the Best Community Project for 2019, from the National Association of NGO in Zimbabwe (NANGO) for our Community Nutrition Gardens’ initiative set up for women in 3 villages. A study done in 2007 showed that the nutritional status of children under-5 was appalling. Stunting levels had increased to an unacceptable level of 46% in children. The programme “Supporting Women Action in Addressing Land Degradation and Income Generation in Mfiri Village”was set up to alleviate issues of malnutrition among pregnant women and children under-5.
The burden of watering the community garden was reduced through sinking a solar powered borehole. The improved water provision also served the community with clean household water, and reduced cases of water borne diarrheal diseases. Women in these communities were able to produce enough to improve their food security and also sold the excess produce and increased their income from $5 a month to $50.
Madhavi – What are your future plans for WICO?
Rebecca – The future for WICO is very bright. With our current track record and experience over the years, there is plenty of room to stretch and excel.
With support from partners and well-wishers, we aim to – end violence against women and girls (VAWG), in particular, GBV /sexual harassment in Tertiary institutions of learning in Zimbabwe. We will support improved reporting and monitoring of sexual violations of women and girls in all communities through digital applications.
Improve the resilience and adaptive capabilities of women to effects of climate change through capacity building, climate smart agriculture and entrepreneurial skills training.
Establish community WASH programmes to provide easy access to tapped water for households through community water source and reticulation projects which will reduce the unpaid labour burdens on women and girls.
Madhavi – What is the one issue that you would want WICO to be known for?
Rebecca – To be known as the leading organisation in Zimbabwe that holistically addresses the rights of women and girls and improve their standard of living and well-being and .
To excel in the fight against violation of women and girls rights in particular, GBV, health rights.
We will not accept anything less.
Madhavi – You are very inspirational. What drives you?
Rebecca – My purpose is to have a positive impact on the lives of people I interact with and leave behind a lasting legacy of care, love and compassion. I wish to leave behind something positive and pleasing to God in my life time. I love helping people, particularly the less privileged.
I am a very positive person and do not give up on my desired goal. I persevere till I accomplish what I aim for. Life has not been easy as a single parent but I never wallowed in self-pity. Instead I strived to reach my potential. I am driven by the desire to stay active and venture into new territories. I am not content with little but aim to stay on top and achieve more. Circumstances sometimes limit me but I will not give up. If I had the means I would travel the world and make as many friends as possible. I like to meet new people and learn from them. I make friends that I keep and treasure the shared experiences.
Madhavi – Indeed, that is sensational.
Thank you, for generously giving your time and inputs for this interview. All the best in WICO’s future projects and plans.