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FEATURE STORY July 7, 2021

Empowering Rural Women in Zambia to Move out of Poverty


Photo: World Bank

Key Numbers:

  • 75,000 women from extremely poor households received livelihoods packages
  • 28,000 girls from poor households have received tuition for secondary school

For those living in rural Zambia, poverty rates were stubbornly high, impacting as much as 78 percent of the population and disproportionately affecting adolescent girls and women. Although the country had achieved close to universal access to primary education, secondary school coverage was falling and included only about 40 percent of school aged children.  

National data confirmed that investments in human capital development—health, education, and social protection for the poorest and most vulnerable households—were critical to national economic growth. According to national household data and World Bank analyses, when girls went to secondary school, they earned almost 100 percent more than their peers who did not. And when women worked outside of agriculture, their earnings increased by roughly 35 percent.  

Based on this knowledge, Zambia made it a priority to help more girls and women reach their potential. With support from IDA, the Girls’ Education and Women’s Empowerment and Livelihoods (GEWEL) Program was created. The project works to increase access to livelihood support for women and access to secondary education for disadvantaged adolescent girls in extremely poor households in selected districts. 

The GEWEL program targets women and girls at two critical points in life. First, by providing secondary school tuition, the program is helping adolescent girls transition successfully from primary to secondary school. These interventions have helped to increase education outcomes and delay early marriage and pregnancy. Second, GEWEL provides subsistence to sustainable livelihoods through skills training, grants, savings support, and mentorship to help women turn piecemeal work into viable microenterprises.  

For Karen Mwamba, a 45-year-old mother of three, this intervention was life-changing.  

“I got married when I was 17-years-old, and like most men in the village my husband was a peasant farmer,” Ms. Mubanga says. “We survived from the little that we grew on our small piece of land. My husband and I were content with the kind of life we lived until we started having children. We had no means of feeding or paying their school fees.” 

With the productive grant she received from the GEWEL program, Ms. Mwamba bought three goats and used the remainder of the money to buy rice. She began selling rice in her rural community and has been able to successfully improve the quality of life for her family. 

To date, the GEWEL program has supported more than 28,000 girls from poor households by covering their secondary school costs. In addition, 75,000 women from extremely poor households in 51 districts across all 10 provinces of the country have received livelihoods packages similar to Ms. Mwamba’s, consisting of life and business skills training, a productive grant equivalent to $225, mentorship, and support to form savings groups.