How to show a young woman her worth? Give her a mentor

by Devotha Mlay, Managing Director for Programs, Girls Livelihood and Mentorship Initiative

If you are a young girl in Tanzania, you will grow up believing that you are weak, that you are less important than boys, and that your main purpose is to take care of the family. You will grow up believing that being confident and determined is rude, that asking questions signals a lack of good manners, and that you have no worth, unless a man does you a favor by supporting you.

I know this because I grew up believing it too. But now, I am the Managing Director for Programs at an organization that is upending this narrative, teaching girls that they have so much to offer and can rewrite the future for girls even in the wake of a devastating global pandemic.

Girls Livelihood and Mentorship Initiative (GLAMI), formerly AfricAid Tanzania, mentors secondary school girls ages 13-21 in Tanzania to complete their education, develop into confident leaders, and transform their own lives and their communities. We equip girls to overcome challenges and reach their full potential because educated girls create lasting, positive change. The outcome is resilient, proactive, and socially responsible girls who secure better jobs, raise healthier families, and increase the standing of women in society.

Building a relationship with a positive role model is a powerful method for empowering young women to realize their own worth. That’s why our core mentorship programs link successful, university-educated Tanzanian women with girls and young women in secondary school to help them learn life skills they won’t learn anywhere else: critical thinking and the creativity and emotional intelligence needed to cope with their lives and contribute to their community. When women dare to change the narrative and share their stories with young girls, we begin immediately to see shifts in these girls’ attitudes and how they think about their futures.

Through our four-year Binti Shupavu program, girls in lower secondary school (ages 13-18) learn study skills, personal leadership, health, and self-confidence with the goal of increasing graduation rates among vulnerable girls. Our two-year Kisa Project is a leadership course that prepares young women in their last two years of secondary school (ages 17-21) to attend university and create positive social change in their communities. By the end of this program, every participant designs and implements a team capstone project, a two-day service activity that demonstrates to the community – and reinforces to our scholars – the worth of an empowered young woman.

Our programs are not academic in focus, but our scholars routinely outperform their peers. 99 percent of our Binti Shupavu participants graduated from lower secondary school in 2018, compared with a national average of 69 percent. 98 percent of our Kisa scholars continue on to university, compared with a national average of 3 percent. We see these results from our scholars, because their mentors have provided a road-map for how to succeed and the tools to overcome the obstacles along the way.

All of us in the SOAR community are working to break barriers, champion change, and pursue bold ideas to advance opportunities for women and girls. But no matter our issue area, I can tell you one thing with certainty: when women and girls see possibility, they see their potential.

There is no better time for all of us to be demonstrating that mentorship than right now. We are all navigating uncharted waters. Schools are closed throughout Tanzania and our scholars are currently unable to meet face to face with their mentors, or with each other. We do not have laptops to send home or the infrastructure in place to continue our programs digitally. But we do have the ability to demonstrate to our scholars the skills we are teaching them, by employing critical thinking, creativity and emotional intelligence as we update our programmatic format to fit the current situation. We’ve established toll-free telephone lines so scholars can contact our social workers and developed a system to provide them, (and by extension, their families) with reliable health information and recommendations via text messaging.

Women and girls often face the most hardship in times of crises and any disruption in education can be detrimental to girls’ futures, but our scholars have training in how to voice their needs and fight for their education. Our mentors are able to maintain a strong presence in scholars’ lives now by mobile phone. Parents of our scholars, always a consideration in our program design, now understand the value of mentorship and the opportunities that this regular time on the family phone can bring to their daughter.

When the world begins to turn again, things will be different. Devastated economies will demand participation from people who have previously been marginalized, creating new opportunities for women and girls. Equipped with skills like conducting needs assessments, public speaking, and collaborating with local leaders, they are poised to lead the way in how their community responds and re-imagines itself in the coming months and years. They know that they are strong, they are smart, and they are resilient: like the leaders we need them to be.

Photo credit: AfricAid

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