Reprinted with permission from St. Catherine University. View the full original article, which was published on March 7, 2023.
At just ten years old, Maka Chikowero ’26 was the youngest delegate to the 2015 United Nations Commission on the Status of Women conference. She had been invited to speak at the UN after her school project on gender inequality caught the attention of Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda, a human rights lawyer, former African Union Goodwill Ambassador on Ending Child Marriages, and former General Secretary of the World YWCA. This early involvement was the launchpad for years of activism in women's rights and girls' education for Chikowero, and later led her to found her own nonprofit and to St. Kate's, where she is a first-year double majoring in women and international development and public health.
Chikowero’s nascent interest in gender equality blossomed after her first trip to the UN, where she was invited to learn more about how the issue unfolds on a global scale.
“That was an eye-opening experience for me, getting to see what gender inequality looks like and what people were doing about it,” Chikowero said. “I said, I want to take this back to my community in Madison, to my community in Zimbabwe, and help people in any way that I can.”
As a lifelong athlete and strong believer in the transformational power of sports — she played soccer and swam in high school, and is a student-athlete on St. Kate’s swim team — she decided to begin by donating soccer equipment to girls in rural areas of Zimbabwe. Her initial donations enabled the first ever girls’ soccer tournament hosted by Rozaria Memorial Trust in the Murehwa rural district in 2016. They now host girls’ soccer tournaments every other year to celebrate the Day of the African Child.
Making an impact through school and sport
After several years of learning the ins and outs of advocacy, Chikowero decided as a high schooler to start her own nonprofit, and MTC Educate a Girl was born. MTC operates in Zimbabwe, and works to support girls and women in rural areas through education, entrepreneurship, and sport.
“At first I started off with a few girls, helping them go back to school, covering all their needs, making sure that they had period products, books, school uniforms, and all their school fees paid for,” Chikowero said.
The nonprofit’s initiatives grew to include girls’ soccer programs and girls’ mentorship programs, where girls meet with mentors, receive career guidance and counseling, and form study groups. During the COVID-19 lockdowns, students in rural Zimbabwe experienced total school shutdowns, which led to a rise in teen pregnancies and substance abuse, in addition to highlighting deep inequalities in access to education and reading materials. In response, MTC began building a community library and learning space in rural Chimanimani, Zimbabwe, the only one in the area.
With the library, Chikowero aims to create a safe space where girls can access technology, learning materials, and education they might otherwise not have the chance to encounter, along with weekly sessions with community leaders, healthcare workers, and career coaches. So far, they’ve received donations of laptops and at least 2,000 books.
“There are so many girls around the area who travel to come to this library,” Chikowero said. “I wanted to create a safe space…to make sure that these girls understand that they have a voice and their voice will not be diminished. Geographical location and their economic status shouldn’t define them.”
Advocating for girls’ futures
Her work has led to her involvement with the United Nations Generation Equality Forum. This past October, she was invited to speak to UN and government representatives for the International Day of the Girl Child 2022. In her speech, she emphasized the importance of education for girls, and called on representatives to take action against child marriage.
“There is a lack of serious commitment by stakeholders, as evidenced by the big number of girls out of school and getting married,” Chikowero told the audience at the UN. “We young people are the leaders of today and we demand to have control of our future… Above everything, we need to accelerate girls’ access to education and retention in educational systems while establishing safeguards and mechanisms of accountability.”
Chikowero will be headed back to the UN this month as a part of the 67th Session Commission on the Status of Women Global Conference, co-hosting a panel entitled “Equity and Advocacy in the Digital Era.” The panel will provide a platform to girls and advocates to provide their own recommendations to the general deliberations of the conference.
“I want to continue to advocate for those who don’t have a seat at the table just yet,” Chikowero said. “I was very privileged to grow up the way I did and have access to everything I had. To ensure that everyone gets a shot to represent themselves and advocate for their needs is really important.”