In Tanzania, women carry water on their heads in five gallon buckets. In the semi-arid area of central Tanzania where I teach secondary school, students that live at the school carry water from a nearby well every afternoon. Both male and female students carry water, but girls, like women, carry the water on their heads, while boys carry the water in their hands. Like carrying water on your head, being a female student in Tanzania is a balancing act: balancing the expectations of women with the requirements of the school system.
While all students in Tanzania must balance the different requirements of their home life and school life, including speaking different languages and using different skills at home and at school, female students must also balance what it means to be a girl with what it means to be a student.
I was leading an after school English club meeting with one of the female teachers I work with when one of the students asked what challenges the teacher had faced in school. The teacher responded with a story about one of her teachers who had expressed that he was attracted to her and hit on her when she was in school. “There is a way you can be distant” she said, explaining how she handled the situation, “I would go to him when I needed to, but I would keep my distance”. It never occurred to her that the teacher should have been the one to handle the situation. This was merely one of the many challenges she faced as a female student.
In addition to navigating power dynamics and managing boundaries, female students have to deal with many biases against them. As a teacher, I struggle to get girls to participate in my classes. Some of the teachers I work with have also noticed that girls do not perform well in the classroom and have come to conclusions such as girls “are not serious” and “don’t study”.
Making schools into environments in which girls are protected, encouraged, and expected to succeed is necessary for achieving a more gender balanced world. Asante Africa Foundation is working to address these issues through the Girls’ Advancement Program (Wezesha Vijana), which work in both Tanzania and Kenya. The program provides education around issues that impact girls and women in Rural East Africa, and provides opportunities for girls to build life skills, confidence, and a future. However, the program does not stop with educating just girls. The Girls’ Advancement Program works to educate both male students and parents about issues female students face, giving the female students a support network in the community, and working to change how girls are treated. And the program is working. Female students who participate in the Girls’ Advancement Program are more likely than their peers to continue their education into high school and show a decrease in pregnancy and early marriage.
Girls in Tanzania, Kenya, and the rest of the world face many challenges that they need to balance. Making that balancing act easier will lead to increased equality, but requires the support of teachers, male students, and parents, as well as girls. Through including boys, parents, and community members in their work, Asante Africa Foundation is working towards a world that is both fairer to female students and more gender balanced.
Written By: Kathleen Smith