It’s often the people in our lives that influence our decisions and help shape our future.
For young people, role models are crucial for their personal and professional development because they provide them with images of relatable individuals whose achievements seem attainable.
Research has shown that girls having woman leaders around them raises their academic performance and career aspirations. But with the proportion of female leaders in government, business, science and technology being lower than men both in higher and lower income countries, girls do not have enough female figures or mentors to look up to.
In the village of Mkamba in Morogoro, Mrs Juweni Mpemga, the Village Executive Officer, stands out as an inspirational role model for the girls there. Not only does her presence in the community’s leadership committee give girls a relatable individual to aspire to, but she is using her position to change attitudes among her peers to keep girls in school and increase the number of opportunities they have.
The village of Mkamba is the location of a Raleigh Tanzania water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) project, where volunteers are working alongside the community to build a new toilet block for the local primary school. They are also organising lessons in the school to help promote healthy behaviours towards WASH subjects, such as food hygiene and menstrual hygiene management (MHM).
While Juweni is now successful in her career and has achieved many of her goals, growing up, her father didn’t believe in providing girls with an education. ‘I had to fight with my father to send me to school,’ she said.
When he stopped her from going to secondary school, in an act of defiance, she threatened to report her father to the District Education Officer (DEO). In fear of being punished —Tanzanian law dictates that every child should attend school until they are 16 — he sent her to live with family, who helped pay for a room by a nearby secondary institution.
Her father’s lack of support was disheartening for Juweni, which she said affected her grades. Despite this, she was accepted into college to become a teacher; however, with her father’s opinion not shifting, he refused to offer financial support.
Juweni spent the next 10 years doing various ‘odd-jobs’ to support herself; she described this period in her life as a ‘struggle’.
However, in 2011, 11 years after graduating from secondary school, she had an opportunity to study development planning, and received a certificate. It was this that allowed her to apply for more senior positions such as village executive officer. She has now been in this position for three years, although not always in Mkamba.
While she noted that her Dad is now proud and supportive of what she has achieved, her experience has inspired her to change attitudes in Mkamba and implement changes that will ensure girls receive the education and opportunities they deserve.
Juweni highlighted that an important aspect of keeping girls in school is reducing the stigma associated with periods. She noted that while attitudes toward menstruation has improved since she was at school, there is still misinformation that makes it more difficult for females attending school during their monthly cycle.
She hopes the new toilet block being built by Raleigh Tanzania will not only help improve hygiene, which will make girls more comfortable and offer more privacy, but that the lessons will help to reduce the stigma further. Currently, the 800 students in the school share just 6 toilets (3 male, 3 female), but the new toilet block will contain 18 toilets (9 male, 9 female), in addition to 2 disabled toilets and an MHM room, which has a sanitary disposal unit and a private area.
Juweni is also organising for women in the community to teach girls how to make reusable sanitary wear, as disposable pads can be expensive — this will make sanitary items more accessible to females living in the village.
Other ways in which Juweni is improving the retention of girls in school is by holding regular meetings with different members of the community — village leaders, parents, teachers — to break the belief that the boys are the only ones that can provide for their family, and stress that the development of their community relies on educating girls.
Juweni is also trying to create more vocational training programmes, so that those who can’t go further in academic education can still make a living and be less reliant on the income of their husbands.
Juweni still dreams of going further in her education and studying for a diploma in development planning. With her story being so inspirational so far, it will be interesting to see the further impact she has on young girls in the future.
Words by Jessica Rowbury (Communications officer)