Women of Tomorrow - Girls Empowerment Conference


March 11, 2013

   

Women of Tomorrow - Girls Empowerment Conference

Receiving accurate HIV/AIDS information can save the lives of many school age children. This is particularly the case in areas such as the Iringa region in Tanzania, where the HIV prevalence rate is one of the highest in the country at 16%. In Iringa, stigma and discrimination toward people living with HIV is common and this, combined with the low levels of knowledge about HIV testing, counseling, and treatment, contribute to placing individuals in the community, and especially young girls, at higher risk for HIV infection. These are a number of the reasons why the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) supports the empowerment of adolescent and pre-adolescent girls through programs that support and strengthen their social networks, educational opportunities, and economic assets.

At the second annual “Wanawake wa Kesho” (Women of Tomorrow) girls’ empowerment conference held last June, 44 teenage girls, along with their Tanzanian teachers and Peace Corps Volunteers from 11 participating communities, met for four days of life skills, empowerment, and peer education training. The girls, who attend rural secondary and primary schools, used interactive tools and activities - including games from the Grassroots Soccer curriculum-- to learn more about HIV, its transmission, and what steps they can take to prevent infection.

The conference provided an opportunity for these girls to get their questions about HIV answered, and to build their knowledge base about how to protect themselves, where to get tested, and how to access treatment and other services if they are found to be HIV-positive. The girls also heard from a dynamic woman living with HIV, who spoke openly about her own experience. When asked about the speaker, one Tanzanian teacher commented, “I really admire her courage. I have never met anyone who is brave enough to stand up in front of people and say 'I am HIV positive.' But how can we solve the problem if no one will admit that it exists in their house?” Unfortunately, despite significant improvements, such stigma still exists for many Tanzanians—and other individuals around the globe— living with HIV.

During the conference, participants also openly discussed gender roles, women's rights, sexual abuse, domestic violence and their connections to HIV. In her opening remarks at the conference, a District Administrator spoke passionately to the girls about the importance of staying in school to their future. She said, “If you get married at 15, 14, or 13, what else will you do in your life? How will you be able to achieve your dreams later?” The girls were taught about reproductive health and money management skills—knowledge and tools that can help them to make smart choices as they grow older.

The primary focus of the conference was not only on what the girls did that week, but also on what they would do afterward in their own communities. “The conference isn't just for the girls,” said a Tanzanian teacher, “the whole community benefits. The girls take home what they learn and teach it to their friends and fellow students.” The girls are role models and caretakers to their younger sisters and brothers, as well as future leaders in the community. As potential mothers, the knowledge they gain will also be transferred to the next generation.

The conference was made possible by the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief through a Peace Corps Volunteer Activities Support and Training grant. To ensure sustainability of this program and that the powerful information sharing continues, the Peace Corps conference volunteers set a goal to teach schools and members of the Tanzanian government how similar conferences can be organized locally. A significant factor in the conference’s success was the Tanzanian facilitators who ensured that cultural norms were followed and eliminated language barriers. In moving forward, the Peace Corps Volunteers hope that the girl's empowerment conference will be held annual to train a new group of girls as peer leaders. If the local government’s excitement about the conference is any indication that promise may indeed become a reality.

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