Monthly Matters: Volunteering with Girls in Tanzania

The writer, Joanna (right), poses with a volunteer and staff from Perfect Vision, a women's empowerment non-profit organization.. Joanna McBride

Volunteering my time in Arusha, Tanzania has been a surreal, yet satisfying experience.

When I signed up for the four-week women’s empowerment project, I really didn’t have any idea as to what “women’s empowerment” really meant in Tanzania, nor did I realize what it would entail or how exactly I would be expected to contribute.

On my first day, I was greeted by a group of young faces, eager to learn anything I was willing to teach. It was an empowering feeling, standing at the front of the class, knowing my arrival had been anxiously anticipated by all. I was their new teacher. Relishing in the enthusiasm, I allowed myself to become completely engulfed in their kindness and appreciation. The entire introduction boosted my ego like nothing I had experienced before.

Then all at once, the sensation plummeted.

I realized I had absolutely nothing to teach them.

I’m not a teacher. I’ve never been a teacher.

Sure, I speak English, but I certainly don’t know the first thing about teaching it. Business? Every crumb of business training I had ever received suddenly disappeared and I was left with a blank slate. Empowerment? All motivation abandoned me.

Desperately, I searched myself for teachable qualifications, but came up fruitless. It’s quite heavy realizing how much one depends on modern technology. Without a computer and a keyboard at my fingertips, I’m lost.

The young girls I stood in front of each day needed to be inspired in order to become stronger and more confident. I couldn’t help but feel I would let them down.

I got to work immediately, determined to obtain a teacher's knowledge as fast as possible. Every evening, I scoured the internet, studying various ESL lesson plans, children’s games, simple business lesson plans and motivational speeches. I read a multitude of stories of strong women who had endured hardships and managed to turn their lives around for the better. 

My students travelled across the city each day to learn new skills and be present for assorted lessons, but essentially they are there to empower each other. As much as I can try, there is absolutely no way I will ever be able to understand the hardships they face. Together though, each of them support each other. It didn’t take long before I realized that regardless of what I taught or discussed—whether it be budgeting or waking up each day with a positive mindset—everything I said was actually empowering them, and in the process, they were empowering me. Women supporting women is undeniably fundamental to not only their happiness, but their growth.

This support for each other is an essential part of a balanced life.

During their daily afternoon sewing lesson, these young ladies spend a significant amount of time stitching together sanitary napkins to donate to those in need. "Period poverty" runs rampant in Tanzania, and many young girls do not have access to feminine products. This widespread phenomena can actually deny a young girl their right to an education, as many end up dropping out of school. Lack of education has proven to be detrimental to the social development and economic growth of any country. Monthly menstruation can impact the dignity and self worth of these young girls more than imaginable.

So, I jumped at the chance to accompany a few of the ladies to a remote boarding school to distribute sanitary napkins. Mfereji is a primary school approximately 60km from Arusha, with 271 female students between the ages of nine and 15. Many of the students come from very remote Maasai tribes. Their parents send them to school, but struggle to afford shoes, underwear and school supplies, let alone feminine hygiene products. As a result, the girls often resort to collecting anything they can find (even scouring through trash cans) to help contain the monthly flow. They resort to using old rags, bits of soiled toilet paper, cardboard and even sawdust.

They were eager to learn in order to better their lives and support their family.

I wasn’t entirely sure what my contribution would be for the day, but without much warning, I found myself educating young girls on puberty, menstruation and personal hygiene. It was humbling, seeing the excitement on their faces as they soaked up our knowledge. When we covered puberty, many of them contributed to the conversation and provide examples of what to expect during this physical development. There was no explosion of giggles when bigger boobs or hips were mentioned. They were so eager to learn in order to better their lives and support their family.

Each of the 50 girls we spoke with received a reusable sanitary kit in a small, multicoloured bag with a drawstring ribbon tie. Inside were few items to assist with their time of the month and make menstruation as easy as possible: a cloth panty liner shield, which snapped across the bottom crotch of the underwear. There were also six absorbent fleece pads, a stick of laundry soap and a ziplock bag, meant for storing soiled pads.

Part of my personal hygiene speech included frequent hand washing and showering, but as soon as the words escaped my lips, I realized I didn’t know how often they had access to toilets and hand-washing facilities.

I have witnessed so many people arrive in developing countries, doling out money for assorted candies and school supplies to orphanages and primary schools. Many are willing to help by donating their time, their resources or their money, yet few realize period poverty is denying young girls the right to education. If more people would join the initiative aimed at maintaining the dignity of young girls, together we could put an end to this devastation. Ensuring girls are comfortable and confident during menstruation works to shape the rest of their lives. Promoting education in developing countries promotes employment and financial earnings. It also improves health, as well as significantly reduces poverty.

It’s simple.

Support girls and women.


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Published in Volunteer Abroad Blogs
Joanna McBride

Joanna McBride is a freelance writer and travel blogger based outside of Vancouver, Canada. Her focus is on more personal experience and she is the explorer behind My Crush on the World. Joanna has the unique ability to embrace the frequent mishaps of solo travel in a humorous way. Always wanting to go farther, stay longer and see more, she chronicles the places she visits and the people she meets along the way. Joanna has written business features, travel stories, reviews, and profiles for a variety of websites, magazines and newspapers.


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