I just returned from a girl’s conference meeting in Iringa. There are 12 volunteers participating in this, our 2nd annual, conference and each volunteer is bringing 4 girls + 1 counterpart. The conference will be at the end of June. With this conference impending, I thought I’d take a few minutes to talk about girls with you.
In my own experience, being a white, empowered female in Africa causes people to treat me like a male. I am not expected to do the things females do here (ie. cook, clean, etc.) and I tend to hang out with guys more because the women are busy at home or on the farm. I remember first arriving in Madibira, driving through the center of town, and not seeing a single female. At the time, it made me really uncomfortable to move into an African village full of huge Tanzanian men. Since then, I have found there are plenty of women but they are not seen as much. They have to raise the kids while the men are watching soccer and playing pool.
The second week after I moved in, one of my female neighbors came to talk with me about family planning. She did not want to have a child so she asked what she should do. I explained to her birth control options and gave her some condoms but she didn’t seem convinced. “He doesn’t like wearing these,” she said. I was taken aback by this and responded, “it doesn’t matter, tell him to wear them anyways.” She handed them back to me and told me she couldn’t. I was furious. Not at her, obviously, but the situation: the fact that she had no voice in matters that deeply impacted her.
I am always trying to make people question gender roles here. I tell everyone that I cannot cook and am then (always) asked what I will do when I marry. I respond by explaining to them that my husband will have to be able to cook. This always gets some head shaking, laughs, and a, “but in Tanzania, men don’t cook”. “They could,” I always respond. More laughs follow.
In Tanzania, the status of girls is very reminiscential of America in the 50’s. Girls cook, clean, and watch after the kids. They do not play a big part in decision-making, and many of the girls who are lucky enough to go to college, go in order to find a wealthy husband. Domestic violence is a huge problem that is not spoken about. To leave your husband is not common and highly frowned upon. The idea of monogamy is a bit of a joke. Everyone just has sex with everyone (which is not helping the HIV/AIDS rates decrease).
Many girls are not told about their menstrual cycles until it comes (kumbe!), and many don’t use/know of proper methods in order to stay hygienic during this time of the month. At our girl’s conferences we teach girls all of these things. We have sessions on female anatomy/biology, HIV/AIDS, how to chose a life partner, achieving your goals, money management and micro-financing, domestic violence, family planning, etc. with the hopes that our girls will become peer educators in their respective schools and communities.
To educate and empower the girls is only one half of the equation. In order for girls to be equal, boys and girls both have to change their preconceived notions and gender biases—ergo, the advent of boy’s conferences. Our annual girl’s and boy’s conferences are, therefore, appropriately named ‘Wanawake wa Kesho’ (women of tomorrow) and ‘Mabadiliko Yanawezakana’ (change is possible), respectively.
America got lucky with equality. WWII acted as a catalyst, forcing gender roles to be flipped in a relatively short period of time. We are still not completely there yet, but after being here for a year and a half, I see how far ahead we are and (again) how lucky I was to be born American. We have all gotten lucky, but shouldn’t we use our luck to put a voice to the millions of girls who don’t have one/ who didn’t get lucky?
I am asking that you be informed. We may live in a country where men and women are basically equal, but to only look in our own boarders is to be peripherally blind. The majority of countries in the world still have major issues with equality. Girls are being raped, beaten, genitally mutilated, sold as a commodity for sex, put down and not given a voice on a daily basis. Woman are a huge asset to world development and instead of being used as a resource they are being shot down like the enemy. WASICHANA WANAWEZA (girls can do it!) and we have the voice to help them. Let’s use it.
I highly recommend reading the book Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. It really puts things into perspective.