On July 14th of this year, forty female secondary school students from the Njombe region in the Southern Highlands of Tanzania came together for a three-day empowerment conference. With help from the VAST (Volunteer Activities Support and Training) funding source, and the organizational abilities of five Peace Corps Education Volunteers, the students were able to think about their futures. They learned about the importance of goal setting and having confidence while pondering potential careers, as well as the necessity of healthy relationships, recognizing the reality of HIV/AIDS, and the power of gender equality as they take their next steps in life. Take a look at the story below of the 2016 Njombe Girls Conference, written by PCV Erin Donahue, the primary conference planner.
The Njombe region of Tanzania has the highest rate of HIV prevalence in the country at 14.5%. Young girls in this region are arguably the group most at risk for contracting HIV due to a variety of cultural and biological reasons. At the secondary school level, students learn about the HIV virus, symptoms of AIDS, and treatment of the disease, but only in a basic academic setting. At school, students rarely get the big picture of how AIDS can impact people on both an individual and community-wide level.
The syllabus does not teach students about the cultural beliefs and stigmas about the disease. It does not teach students how to plan for a healthy, fulfilling life by having goals, being a confident leader and an agent for positive change. For this reason, five education Peace Corps volunteers in the region along with their counterparts, planned a weekend girls conference to train forty female secondary school students in topics concerning HIV/AIDS education, goal setting, career exploration, confidence building, gender equality, and having healthy relationships.
The welcoming at the conference location. The group of forty girls participating are lined up in the L-shape on the left.
There were four schools that participated in the girls conference: Hagafilo, Kidegembye, Itulahumba, and Sovi Secondary Schools. From each school, ten girls who were identified as leaders in their communities were chosen to attend the conference. On the morning of July 14th, all of the girls, counterparts and volunteers arrived at the conference center. They were welcomed by an original song made by the participants at Kidegembye Secondary School about the power and importance of women. The song was followed by an icebreaker activity, a pre-test, and recognition of the rules and goals for the weekend.
The lesson following lunch was a lesson called “Mimi Ni Mrembo”, which means “I Am Beautiful” in Swahili. The girls drew a self-portrait, and were instructed to explain in front of the rest of the group what they liked about themselves. Peace Corps volunteer Sarah Hawley said this was her favorite activity, and that she had never seen her girls shine so much as in that moment. After this lesson, the girls engaged in a discussion about menstruation and hygiene with immense assistance of female counterparts.
The last lesson of the first day was an introduction to goal setting to help the students learn about the importance of setting goals, the difference between short and long term goals, and strategies for overcoming obstacles in their lives. Later in the evening, they made vision boards, collages, by using magazine clippings to creatively express their goals.
On the second day of the conference, the girls participated in a very successful gender equality activity. The girls were given cards with a variety of activities on them. They were then instructed to quickly decide if they described a role of men or women. At first the girls put certain cards in their stereotypically allotted spot; for example, women cook and clean while men are drunkards and provide most of the money for the family. After discussing, however, the students realized that the roles of men and women are not fixed. They moved all but one card to a mutual category for roles describing both men and women, breaking the stereotypes of gender roles.
Following the gender equality lesson was HIV/AIDS education. The girls discussed and debunked myths, learned how to love and care for people effected by HIV/AIDS, practiced the proper use of condoms, and played a game to demonstrate the importance of abstinence and condom use in preventing the spread of sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.
After lunch, the lessons continued with a discussion on healthy relationships. The students compiled their ideas on healthy and unhealthy relationships and discussed risky behaviors that potentially lead to sexual assault. This led to the risk limbo game where students had to safely pass under a stick that represented contracting the HIV virus. Each round, the stick was lowered to signify participation in more risky activities, such as engaging in sexual relations with older and older men, and each round the students had a harder time avoiding the HIV virus.
This was a very important lesson for these girls because a large problem seen in schools is young girls having sex with older men for money or some form of reimbursement. These older men are much more likely to already have HIV/AIDS than a younger man and therefore pass it on to young girls who choose to have sex with them.
The final activity of the second day allowed the girls to take their first ever personality test and match them with careers that fit their strengths according to their results. They learned about the duties of the job, and the education needed to reach that career.
The final day of the conference opened with a student panel comprised of five women studying at the Hagafilo College. The most popular questions concerned how to enroll in a variety of programs after secondary school, but the five college women also gave their own advice on how to be successful. They told the girls to study hard but to also find time to relax and enjoy themselves. The secondary school girls really enjoyed this session and mentioned that the college women are now some of their role models.
The remainder of the day was used to prepare for teach backs. Students from all four schools were mixed, put into groups, and assigned a lesson to teach back to the audience. A variety of teaching methods were used, but most groups decided to use acting to demonstrate the assigned lesson. The students planned to use their teach back lessons to bring the information from the conference back to their schools.
During the day, the girls were also allowed time to prepare for the evening talent show. When the time for the talent show arrived, all Peace Corps volunteers and counterparts were amazed to see the girls blossom. The first group put on a fashion show, where they walked with pride, radiated confidence and expressed their creativity. The following groups performed a rap about the dangers of HIV for youth, sang and danced to bongo flava favorites and acted out witty skits. Not only did the performers do a spectacular job, the remaining girls in the audience supported and cheered on their peers.
The talent show really demonstrated the impact of the conference on these girls. The closing ceremony then followed. The girls received certificates and shirts with the saying, “Binti bila ukimwi inawezikana, jilinde”, which in English means, “Girls without AIDS is possible, protect yourself.” The shirts serve as a reminder and teaching aid for when the participants return to their villages. After all the activities, the girls went to their rooms for the last night with their new friends. It was an evening showcasing the spirit of strength, confidence, and community.
The departure day was bittersweet. The conference had been a great success, but the girls also had to say goodbye to their new friends. Violet from Kidegembye Secondary School said that her new friend Veronica from Hagafilo had taught her to not be afraid when speaking English and they assured each other that they would meet again. Anna and Lucy from Sovi said that they will miss their friends from Hagafilo School, who they rehearsed with for the talent show.
One of the goals of the conference was to introduce new ideas and experiences to the girls by mixing them with those from other schools and backgrounds. This goal was achieved, and the impact seen when the students returned to their villages. Information was already conveyed through the performance of teach backs at each of the participating schools.
Adela from Itulahumba gave a speech at morning assembly about the importance of self-confidence, especially for young students who find themselves being pressured into having sex. She especially explained that by having the confidence to say no when a person means no, helps to prevent sexual assault, unplanned pregnancy, and the spread of HIV/AIDS. Violet from Kidegembye went home to tell her grandmother all that she learned at the conference, and received immense praise from her family for being a smart, confident young woman.
Even village members have expressed to volunteers and counterparts their gratitude for bringing their daughters to the conference. They said that they have noticed their girls speaking their minds, performing well in school and being inspired by the training that was provided to them by the conference. The knowledge gained by these girls will only continue to spread in their communities as stories are told. Issues pertinent to the youth in these communities will be discussed, solutions will be made, and opportunities for healthy futures will be possible.