The Very Important Girls Group: Investing in youth to invest in the future of Tanzania
- 15 June 2016
SHINYANGA, United Republic of Tanzania – Unlike 95 per cent of girls her age in Tanzania’s Shinyanga region, at 17, Rahuba Kenedy was enrolled in secondary school – and excelling academically. Then, she met a charming man and started dating him. However, in Tanzania only 34 per cent of sexually active, unmarried adolescent girls have access to modern forms of contraception, and soon, she became pregnant.
As a result, she dropped out of school before graduation and married the man. He never paid the dowry he had promised her family, and soon took to leaving her and her children alone for weeks at a time without a single cent or food.
Three years after their marriage, she had had enough and temporarily left her husband. After two months, she returned – only to discover that without warning her, he had remarried another adolescent girl.
“I was really hurt. I could not believe my husband could have done that to me,” she says. “That night I stayed with a neighbour, and the following morning I started a painful journey home [to my mother’s] with my two daughters. And I made up my mind it was time for me to move on.”
And that is exactly what she did. One week after returning to her mother’s village, a friend introduced Rahuba to a newly established community centre that hosted a programme called the Very Important Girls Group, supported through UNFPA’s Action for Adolescent Girls initiative. Rahuba decided to join.
It was a decision that would change her life.
In Tanzania, 64 per cent of the population is under age 25, perfectly situating the country to capitalize on a demographic dividend – a boost in economic productivity that occurs when there are growing numbers of people in the workforce relative to the number of dependents.
But gaining this economic growth will require investing in youth’s, and especially girls’, health, education and ability to contribute to their community’s economy – including by ensuring they have access to sexual and reproductive health and family planning, so they can determine the timing and spacing of their children and reduce their number of dependents, if they so desire.
“We cannot afford to leave our young people behind, because they are not only our hope, but they are our future too,” said former Tanzanian President Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete, during an address on sustainable development and the demographic dividend given at the United Nations headquarters in New York on 6 June. “Investing in them is an opportunity that should not be missed at whatever cost.”
But there are many challenges to ensuring that every girl in the country can realize her full potential. Girls who marry or become pregnant are much less likely to stay in school. And nationally, approximately 39 per cent of Tanzanian girls have become pregnant by age 19, and 37 per cent have married. At 59 per cent, Shinyanga has Tanzania’s highest rate of child marriage.
UNFPA launched the Action for Adolescent Girls programme in the country in 2012, and it is currently operating groups for adolescent girls in four districts in the Shinyanga region, and reaching thousands more in the surrounding communities through outreach.
Participating girls and young women learn about sexual and reproductive health and family planning, receive income generation training in areas, such as batik cloth dying and sewing, and become empowered voices in their communities able to contribute to growth and achieving a demographic dividend.
Rahuba joined the Very Important Girls Group and never looked back. She quickly became one of its leaders and a peer educator. And now she runs her own batik business, allowing her to support her mother and daughters, and has joined a local football team and theatre troupe. She also works as a reporter for a weekly radio program, supported by Action for Adolescent Girls, that offers information about sexual and reproductive health, including the importance of postponing pregnancy and marriage, and about income generation skills for women and girls.
“I believe that if I had had this information early enough, I would not have fallen pregnant and would have continued with my education,” she says of her outreach efforts. “And parents, especially fathers, should support their children to stay in school instead of marrying them off.”