Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Let’s Talk About Sex: Being a Girl in Tanzania

Author: Christopher Guess

Sex is still a taboo subject in Tanzania. The ignorance that stems from not being able to talk about it is proving costly to the future of too many teenage girls. Chris Guess highlights one program’s effort to make a difference.

Bryn is an interesting young woman to talk to. Eighteen years old and only recently graduated from high school, she has already been lucky enough to hold experiences that many people, if they’re even inclined to, could only dream about. In 2010, she, along with a group from her school, traveled to Tanzania and assisted in installing deep-water wells in rural Masai villages. While she was there, she was lucky enough to meet a mutual friend of ours living there at the time. Daudi Messeema, whose mother is from Kansas and father is from Tanzania, had a few days off and had been hired as the class’ liaison while for the trip.

Coincidentally, Daudi and his wife Kellan had just started a new NGO out of their house in Arusha. They named their project Empowered Girls and set about fixing a serious problem they witnessed in their backyards and across Tanzania. Kellan and Daudi decided the group’s goal should be to fight the problems that plague all teenage girls; self-esteem, sexual education, setting correct priorities. In the West we have been working on these for a long time, but women’s issues continue to be woefully unaddressed in the more traditional societies of East Africa.

Empowered Girls program manager Upendo leads a seminar for girls at the
Oldonyo Lengai Secondary School in Engaruka, Tanzania.

As an example of what they’re up against, before 2010 it was illegal in Tanzania for a pregnant girl to return to school after giving birth. While this law was done away with fairly recently, it’s still very much a social norm, though, sometimes it stems from the necessity for the new mother to spend post-natal time with her child. This leaves a lot of teenage girls uneducated and unable to better their lives or those of their children’s given their disadvantaged position.

The really sad part is the prevalence of teenage pregnancies in East Africa that are easily preventable. Sex is an awkward subject for parents to bring up in any society, but the results of this taboo in East Africa can be devastating. Instead of learning from a parent, who they sense are not allowed to discuss sex, they learn from older siblings or, even just as precarious, other teenagers their own age. I’m sure anyone reading this can remember back to the rumors and misinformation thrown about when they were thirteen or fourteen years old. Luckily in (most of) the America we have actual sex education and the reasonable expectation that we can ask academic experts and get a straight and true answer. In the secondary schools where Daudi and Kellan work, this is absolutely not the case, which puts girls at a great disadvantage in society. Myths such as “if I stand up while having sex I can’t get pregnant” or “if I wash afterwards with cold water I can’t get pregnant” are rampant and passed on from generation to generation.

Empowered Girls was set up to help stem the tide and cycle of misinformation. The program does this by focusing on providing role models and experienced individuals school girls can trust will answer a question accurately, unabashedly, and listen to their problems completely. Daudi and Kellan bring in women that can be looked up to, lawyers, business professionals, nurses, and let them teach the girls the lessons they themselves had wished they had.

The work is understandably overwhelming though, and when Bryn heard about this program she decided she wanted to be involved. So instead of spending the summer after high school relaxing with friends and having one last hurrah, she spent it in intensive Swahilli training on a dirt road outside of Arusha.

Abortion is illegal in Tanzania, but it is still a common and dangerous practice that kills many girls. Rape and coerced sex with vulnerable girls are also problems that often result in unwanted pregnancies. Girls and women are rarely empowered to use contraceptives.

After acclimating Bryn, Daudi and Kellan realized that Bryn had an ability that could fill a void in Empowered Girls’ seminars and lectures. Bryn happened to be the same age as the students and, in addition to listening to nurses and doctors much older than themselves, Bryn became a peer and a confidant.

A strange feeling comes on many people who leave the America to teach. People tend to treat you as an expert simply because of where you grew up. The sad part is that, when compared to many of the educational systems in the world, they’re right. The students definitely took advantage of having someone their own age in their classroom. When Bryn would open herself up for questions, the students would change. As she explained it, “It really motivates them, someone else cares about them so they're able to believe in themselves more.” Having the opportunity to ask questions and get authoritative answers from someone their own age is a chance that none of these girls had ever gotten before.

Empowered Girls has been accepted into four schools so far, and the program is hoping to expand as quickly as funds will allow. The time is too short and the numbers are too small at the moment to draw any specific conclusions that what it is doing is making a meaningful difference, but the heart of the project is in no doubt in the right place. Educating girls has been shown time and time again, across the world, to substantially help move a country and region forward. This is just one more step towards the goal.

Christopher Guess is a journalist, photographer and tech entrepreneur based in Brooklyn, New York. Christopher writes about emerging innovations and individuals within Africa’s tech industry. Through his reporting, he seeks to highlight the successes and issues that emerging economies face when transitioning to knowledge based economies. He has reported extensively in the United States and internationally on humanitarian and economic issues. Eastern Africa became a specific point of interest for him while travelling and reporting in the area in 2008. In addition to his journalism, Christopher is the co-founder of two tech start-ups in New York City, giving him a distinct vantage point on developmental milestones and opportunities.

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