PRISCILLA MWILA, Lusaka
DETERMINATION, focus and hard work are the three words that Natasha Salifyanji Kaoma, winner of the Queenâ€™s Young Leaders Award (QYLA), uses to describe herself.
Natasha, a medical student at the University of Zambia Ridgeway campus, could not stop smiling as she narrated how excited and honoured she and her team were to receive the award which she describes as a precious achievement.
The QYLA initiative recognises and celebrates exceptional people aged 18 to 29 in the Commonwealth, who are taking the lead in their communities and using their skills to transform lives. According to the Queens Young Leaderâ€™s website, winners of the award receive a unique opportunity for training, mentoring and networking, including a one-week residential programme in the UK during which they will collect their awards from Queen Elizabeth. After this award winners are expected to go back to their countries to continue with the exception work in their communities.
Natasha is among the 60 young people from the Commonwealth who won the 2017 Queenâ€™s Young Leaders Awards.
Born in 1992 in Livingstone, Natasha is the sixth born of seven children. She comes from a female-dominated family with only one male among her siblings.
She did her primary school at Cosmopolitan School and later went to St Maryâ€™s Secondary School in Lusaka where she completed in 2007. And in 2009, she was admitted to the University of Zambia (UNZA) and is expected to graduate in July.
Natasha describes her childhood experience as uninspiring as she was usually teased by her peers because of her weight and this negatively affected her self-esteem. However, she did not allow it to limit her potential.
â€œI grew up as a timid and shy person [because] some of my friends would make fun of me because I was very fat. All this made me develop a low self-esteem, but I did not allow it to disturb my schoolwork,â€ she said.
As a teenager, Natasha developed a desire to know why discussing menstrual hygiene and other reproductive health issues was considered taboo in most homes.
She also observed that some girls, especially in rural areas, would miss school during menstruation periods, hence she decided to find a lasting solution to the problem.
But what earned this medical student recognition to win the QYLA
At age 22, Natasha co-founded Copper Rose Zambia, an organisation born out of her passion for menstrual hygiene.
The organisation deals in sexual and reproductive health for adolescents, with special emphasis on menstrual hygiene.
â€œI started the organisation with my sister, Faith Kaoma, after realising there was a huge gap in sexual and reproductive health and that menstrual hygiene is one topic some parents, especially in rural areas, consider a taboo to talk about,â€ Natasha says.
Copper Rose is currently empowering young people with skills on how to make sanitary towels in Southern, Lusaka and Copperbelt provinces.
â€œWe realised that some of our friends cannot afford to buy sanitary pads every time they are menstruating, so we decided to help them learn how to make sanitary towels with their hands. Young people are also able to sell the pads to earn a living,â€ she said.
She was nominated to apply for the QYLA by her friend, Lombe Tembo, in 2015 after she read about the required characteristics for nominees.
Natasha explained that never at any point did she think her simple organisation would make her win the QYLA and make Zambia proud. But she hoped for the best when she was nominated.
â€œI was optimistic that I would scoop the award this year and kept my faith in God,â€ she said.
Natasha, however, says Government and other stakeholders need to increase support for young people who are transforming lives and contributing to national development in Zambia
She said self-denial is the biggest robber of opportunities and that young people should endeavour to remain determined, focused and always believing in their abilities regardless of challenges.
â€œWe young people are not taken seriously and are often perceived to be promiscuous and yet we have the ability to contribute positively to national growth. At first, I was afraid to apply for the award because no one from Zambia was picked last year, but I was confident that I would scoop it by the grace of God,â€ Natasha said.
She praises her parents Arnold and Rhoda Kaoma of Makeni in Lusaka for their support.
â€œMy parents have been loving and supportive. They are so proud of our achievement,â€ she said.
Natasha urges parents to believe in their childrenâ€™s dreams and aspirations even when they do not make sense.
The soon to-be doctor said her parents provided equal education opportunities to her and her siblings and she made the best out of that.
She appealed to young people not to be intimidated but get inspired by those who have gone ahead of them.
â€œWe are all different and have different aspirations. We can all be what we want as long as we work hard, the sky is not the limit,â€ she said.
Natasha will be travelling to the United Kingdom (UK) in June this year to receive her award from Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace.
According to queensyoungleaders.com, Natasha won the award for her commitment to raising awareness about sexual health. Her bio further notes that in 2015, whilst attending medical school, she co-founded Copper Rose Zambia to teach women about the importance of sexual and reproductive health. In addition, Natashaâ€™s organisation is recognised for raising funds to provide menstrual hygiene kits to girls in rural areas, and, through the Candid Pride Campaign and Woman4Her programmes, they have educated over 5,000 teenagers about reproductive health.
â€œNatasha is also the country co-ordinator for the International Youth Alliance for Family Planning and a member of the Youth Coalition on Sexual and Reproductive Rights, where she supports the inclusion of young people in policy making. Her goal over the next five years is to reach a million females through sexual and reproductive health programmes by 2021,â€ queensyoungleaders.com says of the Zambian medical student.
And Zambiaâ€™s High Commissioner to the UK Muyeba Chikonde said it was gratifying to have a Zambian youth representing the country in such a prestigious and competitive programme of the Commonwealth
For winning the award, Natasha joins the community of the Queenâ€™s Young Leaders, a group of influential change agents who are being supported to do more in their communities. The Queenâ€™s Young Leaders Awards is in its third year and the 2018 one will be last.
The four-year programme, supported by The University of Cambridgeâ€™s Institute of Continuing Education, aims to discover, support and celebrate young people from across the Commonwealth.
It helps to transform the lives of young people through awards to individuals who are leaders in their communities and grants to youth-led and focused organisations.
PRISCILLA MWILA, Lusaka