Ndanda Women’s Conference, Mtwara Region, PCTZ, March 31 – April 3 2016

By: Emily Beggins & Katie Van Zante

As Peace Corps Volunteers in Tanzania it’s hard to hide from gender inequality. We see it in the classroom, in our projects and in our communities. The Mtwara region is often conservative and binary in gender roles, and therefore difficult to deviate from. While it is seen as equally important for girls and boys to finish primary school, young men are encouraged to continue to secondary school while many young women are pressured to focus on family: helping their guardians in the house and beginning their own families. The Volunteers in Mtwara exposed our best and brightest female secondary school students to career opportunities in the sciences by visiting the regional hospital and nursing college during the Ndanda Women’s Conference.

With the aid of the Let Girls Learn initiative, the Mtwara volunteers were able to bring together five volunteers from across the region for a Women’s conference in Ndanda, Mtwara. 32 female students, five Volunteers, and five Counterparts came together in Ndanda for a weekend focused on forward thinking: career planning, female empowerment and life skills. We chose Ndanda for its facilities, mainly its high-ranking hospital. The group toured hospital: we saw every ward, used the x-ray and ultrasound machines and talked to female doctors and nurses about their careers. They also met with a panel of nursing students from the nursing school and heard their stories as both relatable and empowered women.

The Volunteers and Counterparts ran sessions on empowerment through art, healthy relationships, sexual health, hands-on sciences focused on HIV transmission and malaria prevention, and decision-making. The Counterparts also participated in a Training of Trainers where we created space to begin unpacking the ways gender plays out in the classroom and community while discussing such topics as gender-based violence and female empowerment.

To close the three-day conference we all piled into vans to travel to the Ndanda Springs to see the natural springs and water treatment plant that supplies clean drinking water to throughout the region and country. We celebrated the close of the conference with a student-run talent show. The girls showed off with traditional Makonde dancing, songs from their communities about HIV stigma, skits, jokes and a fashion show with a model from each school. The models, given titles like “Miss Mkululu,” even had costume changes showing off their school uniforms and street clothes!

The Ndanda Women’s Conference created a safe space for high-achieving female students from a variety of government and private schools in Mtwara to share stories and think about their futures. Some of the things the Volunteers considered most impactful weren’t scheduled in. We saw students from a small village teaching those from a private boarding school to speak the local Kimakonde. We taught our girls how to use a Western toilet and shower for the first time—“RED” means “HOT!” We saw our students, many of whom had never left their villages, asking critical questions without fear. We saw the girls light up when the female nursing students told them that in a few years they, too, could be studying nursing. Their attention was rapt when the Head Nurse told these girls that they could beat the odds in Mtwara if they studied hard and avoided dangerous behavior. Teachers from across the region were able to exchange gender-based problems and advice, reminding every Volunteer that we are not alone. These Counterparts, four out of five empowered women, gave us hope there are teachers who will support these girls in the hardest of times.

The girls returned to their villages as community leaders, as the change they wish to see. They couldn’t have been prouder.

Thank you to Let Girls Learn, we couldn’t have done it without you Michelle Obama! To find out more about the Let Girls Learn initiate, visit their site: https://letgirlslearn.gov/ !

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