It was the middle of the afternoon when Phales Milimo (master's) saw a pregnant woman go into labor and collapse on the sidewalk.
She was in the Sinazongwe District in southern Zambia, just a five-hour drive from her hometown of Lusaka, the country’s bustling metropolitan capital. Technically, she hadn’t left her country, but it felt like she was in a different world.
Milimo, now a graduate student and Fulbright scholar in the women’s and gender studies program at the University of Northern Iowa, watched as a group of people helped the pregnant woman. The woman lived in one of the rural villages in the district and had walked for around an hour, on the cusp of giving birth, to reach the clinic.
It was one of the many challenges Milimo witnessed women face in rural Zambia, and it helped spark her interest in the global healthcare inequalities that are the focus of her studies at UNI.
Milimo arrived on campus in the fall of 2019 with an already decorated academic record. She was the first Zambian to be awarded the Atlas Corps Fellowship in 2016, and a recipient of the prestigious Global Health Corps Fellowship award in 2014. In the coming semesters, she plans to focus her work on bringing transformative change to vulnerable populations.
“My passion is women and girls and trying to see how we can work through the inequalities women face and bring them public health access to empower women,” Milimo said.
Her interests fit seamlessly with the women’s and gender studies program, which focuses on creating social change through a firm scholarly foundation.
This fall, Milimo will start interning in Waterloo with the Ethnic Minorities of Burma Advocacy and Resource Center (EMBARC), an organization that helps refugees successfully settle in Iowa, to explore the barriers refugee women face in accessing quality healthcare. The work will be part of her thesis as she finishes her master’s degree with a concentration on gender and wellness.
She would also like to explore areas of economic empowerment for the women refugees at EMBARC.
She was first exposed to the stark poverty rural women face while working on a project for the international humanitarian charity World Vision. The gender-based healthcare disparities she saw were especially eye-opening. When she would go to the clinic, there were always more women seeking care than men. When she worked on a project examining HIV and AIDS in the district, the adolescent girls had a significantly higher infection rate than the boys.
These discrepancies illustrated the healthcare gap between urban and rural areas in Zambia, and in many developing nations in the world. That’s what has inspired Milimo to devote herself to doing all she can to end gender inequality in healthcare.
“It starts with the empowerment of women, so they can know their health rights and advocate for better healthcare,” she said. “Because they can’t advocate for something they’re not aware of.”
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