Dumisile Melody Mphamba, ’21
Advocating for Zimbabwean women's rights
As a child, I remember watching my aunt travel long distances to refill her supply of HIV medication to manage the disease her promiscuous husband had passed on to her. Since he was the breadwinner in their household, she had endured the abusive marriage for years before he passed away.
Zimbabwe, like most parts of the world, is steeped in patriarchal values that compromise women’s economic standing and negatively impact the trajectories of their lives. Marriage is a source of financial and social security for women, but rules and norms about promiscuity apply differently to men and women. The HIV/AIDS epidemic magnifies this dynamic, trapping women in living situations with unfaithful husbands who infected them with the disease and forever altered the quality of their lives.
Growing up, I felt a deep sense of commitment to reversing this injustice. I am passionate about advocating for women’s equality in all spheres of life, especially their health and economic empowerment. The summer after my first year at Stanford, I had the opportunity to delve into this work as a recipient of the Community Arts Cardinal Quarter Fellowship. I travelled back home to intern at the Culture Fund of Zimbabwe Trust, a nonprofit dedicated to utilizing the arts to educate and empower women at risk of, or living with, HIV/AIDS.
As a projects and marketing Intern, I publicized key achievements of the organization related to DREAMS, a project to educate adolescent girls about their sexual and reproductive health, as well as CultureActions, a project to reduce gender-based violence in rural communities. I was especially drawn to the Culture Fund’s use of the creative arts to communicate their messaging—comics in local languages, clothing and stickers for the community, and even drama skits that preceded community conversations. As a musician who seeks to facilitate social change through creativity, I became more curious about how effective this approach had been for the organization.
I returned to the Culture Fund two summers later as an independent researcher through the Community-Based Research Fellowship to evaluate the effectiveness of the arts-centered approach to women’s health education and advocacy.
Although I had to pivot my research methods to a fully remote format due to the pandemic, I discovered key insights through carefully examining Culture Fund documents and speaking with employees. For example, community members retained important information better if it was delivered through creative means rather than traditional text, it was more accessible for illiterate people, and it generated community dialogue that enhanced people’s learning. Particularly for adolescent girls and young women who may have had limited access to education, this improved knowledge about their bodies potentially equipped them to make informed decisions and build a supportive community with like-minded women.
When I returned to Stanford, I had the opportunity to co-author publications in Dr. Clea Sarnquist’s lab on ways to reduce HIV infection and gender-based violence among adolescent girls and young women.
Exploring these topics first through the nonprofit lens and then the global health research lens has helped me realize that there are multiple ways to garner attention about issues that are close to my heart. As I look to the future, I seek to continue working toward women’s equality by leveraging the power of public-private partnerships to expand economic opportunities available to women and enhance their sense of empowerment.
When I look at my aunt, I see strength. I see a testament to how endurance can enable one to survive immense hardship. When I look at other young women in Zimbabwe, both now and in the years to come, I believe that I will still see strength—but I hope to see a strength rooted in self-knowledge and access to opportunities that enable them to pursue the lives they truly deserve.