How a Tanzanian teen rejected child marriage for her dream job


Memusi Saibulu storytelling at The Moth in Nairobi, Kenya in January 2018 (Credit: Liza Ramrayka)

This story first appeared on Medium.

As a schoolgirl in rural Tanzania, Memusi Saibulu was determined that becoming someone’s wife at the age of 14 would not be part of her life plan.

Growing up in the predominantly Maasai region of northern Tanzania, Memusi knew that her family would expect their daughter to follow tradition and give up her education in her early teens for married life. But the stellar student had other dreams: to continue with her schooling and eventually train to become a doctor.

Memusi, a quietly spoken teenager dressed in her school uniform of red sweater, red tie and black over-the-knee pleated skirt, says her mother had always encouraged her to study hard and do well at school. But her father, driven by cultural convention, had other plans — arranging a marriage and dowry for his daughter while she was still in primary school.

When Memusi told her favorite teacher that family expectations and prohibitive school fees meant she probably wouldn’t be continuing her education to secondary school, the instructor was concerned that such a bright student wouldn’t be given the opportunity to pursue her studies. Perhaps she could apply for a scholarship?

Then, just two days later, the man who was to be Memusi’s husband visited her family home. “The drunk son of my father’s friend,” is how she contemptuously describes the man who forced himself upon her that evening then urged her to leave her parents’ home for a life with him.

On her suitor’s next visit, Memusi felt angry and more confrontational. “You’re not going to get your crooked little legs in my bed,” she told her unwanted intended.

Memusi admits to feeling proud of herself about her defiance but also very scared: “What if he tells my father? What if he tells others in my community?” she thought to herself.

Meanwhile, thanks to the encouragement of her primary teacher, Memusi had secured a place at Orkeeswa School, a community-based secondary school in northern Tanzania that provides holistic education to high performing students whose families don’t have the financial means to pay school fees.

When Memusi received the acceptance letter for secondary school, her mother “jumped up and down” with excitement. Then Memusi took the letter to her father, which forced him to set aside the traditional path he’d envisaged for his daughter in favor of a different journey.

Memusi explained to him that marriage would be the death of her dreams. Secondary school would unlock myriad opportunities, she argued. She won her battle. Because of these strong opinions, says Memusi, she gained herself a bit of a reputation: “I am considered to be a role model for my community.”

Fewer than one per cent of girls in rural Tanzania continue their education to form five and A-levels. Memusi is currently studying physics, chemistry and biology as a form six student. She’s also served as student body vice president, a peer counselor and a leader in community service projects and extra-curriculum activities. Her dream, she says, is to become a general practice doctor who can treat people — particularly women and girls — in her community.

As Memusi shared her experience with others via The Moth storytelling project in Nairobi, Kenya, she was acutely aware of her choice to reject the role of child bride and rail against tradition. She concludes: “I don’t want to destroy culture but I want to change girls being married at a young age.”

Memusi Saibulu participated in ‘Stories of Women & Girls: The Moth in Nairobi’ in January 2018.

Giving Girls a Second Chance at Education

This article first appeared on the Women & Girls Hub from News Deeply

A fast-track learning program in India is being scaled up to help 3 million young girls across developing countries stay in school. Udaan, a residential school for students aged 11-14, helps girls study instead of work or marry.

Teacher Maheshwari Verma (back left) works with Maya, 11, during language class at the Udaan Accelerated Learning Camp for girls near Hardoi, India, on Sept. 9, 2014. Photo by Erin Lubin/CARE

As the oldest of five children, 15-year-old Laxmi Pal grew up caring for her siblings and doing household chores in the rural Indian village of Kodanna in Uttar Pradesh, while her mother was out cleaning houses and her father struggled to find seasonal work on farms. But three years ago, Laxmi became the first member of her immediate family to attend school. Nine months later, she graduated from fifth grade and enrolled in a government secondary school to continue her education.

Like many adolescent girls growing up in rural India who never start or finish primary school, Laxmi envisaged a future of domestic work and early marriage. But instead, she was given a second chance at education through a fast-track learning course run by nonprofit organization CARE.

CARE’s Udaan program (Udaan means “to soar” in Hindi) compresses several years of primary school curriculum into nine months of accelerated learning. Launched in India in 1999, the Udaan residential school offers girls aged 11-14 the chance to quickly complete their education. The program is highly interactive, featuring learning by doing, educational games and group projects to keep the students engaged.

In addition to teaching language, math and environmental science, Udaan teachers help girls learn to question discriminatory practices and beliefs within their villages. Teachers also integrate activities such as morning assembly, where girls gather before class to recite poems, sing songs and perform skits. In their free time, girls play sports and learn to ride bicycles. (The latter is a skill that’s especially important, since the distance to schools is a major hindrance to girls’ education in rural India.)

Students of the Udaan Girls School work on a group exercise. The curriculum includes language, math and environmental science. Udaan teachers also interweave activities such as morning assembly, sports (volleyball, soccer), bicycle riding and computer skills. (Allen Clinton/CARE)

Students of the Udaan Girls School work on a group exercise. The curriculum includes language, math and environmental science. Udaan teachers also interweave activities such as morning assembly, sports (volleyball, soccer), bicycle riding and computer skills. (Allen Clinton/CARE)

Since CARE started Udaan with local partner Sarvodaya Ashram, more than 95 percent of the girls enrolled have passed the fifth-grade exam. Since 2011, the Udaan model has been rolled out to Odisha and Bihar states; in 2013, an Udaan school opened in theMewat district in Haryana state, approximately two hours from Delhi.

According to CARE, just one year of secondary education correlates to a 15 to 25 percent increase in future wages for young women.

At the United State of Women Summit in June, CARE announced a$15 million rollout of the Udaan Second Chances program as part of the U.S. government’s Let Girls Learn initiative. Launched by President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama in March 2015, the initiative is aimed at the estimated 62 million girls globally – half of them adolescents – who are not in school.

Over the next five years, the Udaan program will expand to reach 3 million girls across Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Malawi, Mali, Nepal, Pakistan and Somalia. The program is supported by the U.S. government, ministries of education in individual countries, corporations, foundations and local partner organizations.

CARE argues that when girls are educated, all of society benefits. “Girls who attend school tend to delay marriage and pregnancy, are less vulnerable to disease, and are more likely to increase their own earning power for life,” said Joyce Adolwa, CARE’s director of girls’ empowerment, at the United State of Women Summit.

Brian Feagans, director of communications at CARE, says the program seeks to address lack of access to a relevant education for adolescent girls who are out of school or at risk of dropping out. “It helps them catch up through accelerated learning models and then transitions them back into schools at higher primary or lower secondary levels,” he says. “This is a comprehensive package of interventions that converge around education to create an integrated approach to girls’ empowerment.”

Udaan schools have been deliberately placed in the most disadvantaged areas, where the educational status, particularly for girls, is extremely low. Using the successful results of this model, CARE has advocated for the Indian government to adapt the Udaan curriculum into its state-run schools. Government teachers have been trained on the Udaan approach. This scale-up has helped change the future trajectory of thousands of girls, says Feagans.

Having been through the program, Laxmi now dreams of becoming a teacher. “If I didn’t go to Udaan, I would have been cleaning houses with my mom and soon married off,” she says. “Being at Udaan allowed me to dream about my future for the first time.”


From conflict to California: a journey through cooking and food

This article first appeared on the Women & Girls Hub from News Deeply

Sharing food from their homeland is helping the San Francisco Bay Area’s women refugees to resettle in a new country, while raising awareness of migration and its difficulties.

As a single mother living in the world’s largest refugee camp for 21 years, Somali-born Halimo supported her family by running her own small restaurant. From 7 a.m. until 6 p.m. each day, the mother of three fed more than 100 residents of Kenya’s Dadaab camp, serving up her signature dish of malawah – a sweet Somali pancake.

It’s a recipe Halimo shares – along with her story of resettling to the U.S. in 2011 – in “Between Meals,” a cookbook celebrating the food and lives of California’s refugee women.

Welcoming some 1,400 refugees each year, the San Francisco Bay Area is home to people fleeing conflict or deprivation across the globe, from Afghanistan and Burma to Nepal and Sri Lanka. And for more than 30 years, Bay Area nonprofit Refugee Transitions has been supporting newcomers through education, family engagement and community leadership programs.

The “Between Meals” cookbook project grew out of Refugee Transitions’ home-based tutoring program – a core plank of its work that connects low-income, high-need newcomers with community volunteers who teach them English and life skills. Through sharing meals with their host families and new communities, refugee women share their traditions and much-loved foods but also talk about the experiences that have brought them to their new home.

From Halimo’s Somali malawah pancakes to Naw Htoo’s coconut chicken soup from Thailand, from Arezo’s Afghan meat dumplings to Devi’s goat curry from Nepal, every single recipe tells a story.

Arezo and her family arrived in California from Afghanistan in 2010, when it was no longer safe to live in their native Kabul. Arezo misses her homeland, and the feeling of being surrounded by a large community. So she cooks to remember home and creates meals to connect with new friends. Her meat dumplings (mantu) are made with Japanese gyoza skins from a Mexican market in San Jose in California.

“Mantu is special to me because my mother made it for me the day I found out I was pregnant with my first child,” says Arezo. “I make mantu in California, especially when I miss Kabul and my family in Afghanistan.”

Laura Vaudreuil, executive director at Refugee Transitions, says food plays a significant part in the refugee journey: “Culinary traditions are a thread that connects these women to their homeland, to the personal and cultural history. ‘Between Meals’ is our contribution to preserving these (often disappearing) traditions, and highlighting refugee women’s experiences and expertise, which are so often undervalued.”

To create the cookbook, the volunteer tutor would spend between two and four hours a week with their student to hear their story, cook together and turn their dish into a recipe. Volunteers are trained in the “language experience approach,” which uses familiar subjects such as a food to accelerate language learning.

“Between Meals” author Lauren Markham says the process of recipe and story gathering led to “deepening connections” between volunteers and their students. “When Refugee Transitions matched refugee students with a new volunteer, families were often really excited to have visitors and met them with tea, snacks or even a four-course meal,” says Markham.

“The food was so delicious and the gestures so loving. [Refugee] women may not have worked in their home country so they don’t think of cooking as a skill. In an age of celebrity chefs, all of these wonderful home chefs are under-recognized.”

One of the hardest parts of the cookbook project was turning the student’s instinctive process of creating a familiar dish into a more precise process of measuring ingredients and cooking times. “You have to see the techniques for yourself and a lot of them were new to the volunteers,” explains Markham.

Another challenge was sourcing ingredients for these traditional dishes – from locating a goat farm an hour’s drive from Oakland to make goat curry to tracking down galangal root ginger in a Chinatown market for a Burmese chicken stew.

Vaudreuil says cross-cultural bonds like those created through the cookbook project are hugely beneficial to newcomers seeking to become self-sufficient and integrate into their adopted communities.

But it’s a two-way street. “Often, volunteer tutors tell us that they have benefited as much from the partnership as their students did. After all, tutoring exposes one to new knowledge, intelligence and perspectives that newcomers bring with them to the U.S.,” says Vaudreuil.

The project has been supported by Cal Humanities, an independent nonprofit state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities. All profits from sales of “Between Meals” are distributed among the women who contributed to the cookbook, which has just printed its second edition.

“‘Between Meals’ boldly strikes new ground by centralizing the stories of the powerful women featured and elevating them as historians, keepers of culture and preservers of food traditions, as well as cooks,” says chef, educator and author Bryant Terry.

Arezo learned to make jalebi – a deep-fried syrupy sweet served at birthdays, weddings and other special occasions – from her mother at the age of 13. “In our religion, Islam, it says to eat together – to talk, to enjoy. This goes, too, for cooking … Everyone loves jalebi. When I make it in California, it reminds me of many happy times.”


Girl power to the people

This article first appeared on the Women & Girls Hub from News Deeply

Aware Girls co-founder Saba Ismail explains how her organization is helping young women in Pakistan to shape politics and the peace process

Women with their children attend a special service to mark Mother’s Day at Cathedral Church in Lahore, Pakistan. Photo by AP/K.M. Chaudary

Saba Ismail’s lightbulb moment came the day her 12-year-old cousin was told she had to drop out of school to marry a man 15 years older than her. Saba, also 12 at the time, recalls being outraged that her cousin would never finish her education or fulfill her dream of becoming a pilot.


“I realized then that education – which should be a basic human right for everyone – was actually accessible to only a very few in Pakistan,” she says.

Saba and her older sister Gulalai, 16, mobilized a handful of like-minded school friends from the girls’ hometown of Peshawar in northwest Pakistan. Their mission was to volunteer for human rights organizations and work with women’s rights activists. However, they soon realized that something vital was missing from the picture.

“At that time, there was no platform for young girls to come out and share their ideas – particularly where we were, near the border with Afghanistan, where it is a very feudal, tribal and conservative society,” says Saba.

So in 2002, at the age of 15, Saba, along with Gulalai, cofounded Aware Girls – Pakistan’s first organization run by girls, for girls, to promote women’s empowerment, gender equality and peace. “We had no real expertise, just our thoughts,” says Saba. “But there were no other organizations actually led by young women so this is what we wanted to do.”

Over the past 14 years, the Ismail sisters have grown their small group into an internationally lauded organization whose work has earned them seats at the table with the likes of First Lady Michelle Obama and U.N. General Assembly President Mogens Lykketoft.

Aware Girls has developed several award-winning themes, ranging from leadership training to HIV/AIDS awareness and peace building. Achievements include setting up over 40 Girls’ Power Clubs in schools and universities to teach more than 1,200 girls key leadership skills, and a helpline to support survivors of domestic abuse that serves more than 2,000 people every year.


Gulalai and Saba (right) Ismail, co-founders of Aware Girls (Photo: Angela Catlin)

For Saba, now 28 and executive director of Aware Girls, a key outcome has been getting more girls and young women to engage in the political process. “We come from a part of the country where, in certain areas, it’s not allowable for women to come out and cast votes,” she says.

In 2013, Aware Girls led a team of 100 young women (the first such group in Pakistan’s history) to monitor the general election. In the 2015 local elections, the organization trained 42 young women to run for office and three won seats.

Saba is also heartened by the reaction of boys taking part in Aware Girls initiatives such as its peace activist program. “Sometimes it is the first time that they have had training from a young woman, or the first time they’ve see a woman not covering her head,” she says. “They see that there’s nothing wrong with this and they tell us that they want to send their sisters on the program so that ‘they can be like you.’ We see real transformation in those boys.”

In December 2015, the U.N. Security Council adopted Resolution 2250 – groundbreaking guidance that calls on member states to increase youth representation in peace talks and conflict resolution amid “the rise of radicalization to violence and violent extremism among youth, which can be conducive to terrorism.”

Saba is passionate about seeing more young women in Pakistan included in such work, and contributed to a high-level U.N. debate on peace and security in May 2016. Aware Girls has set up a network of 200 youth peace activists in northwest Pakistan, who are trained in conflict-resolution skills and are reaching more than 1,000 young people each year through peer education and community exchanges.

Like her fellow human rights activist and compatriot Malala Yousafzai, Saba has faced danger because of her beliefs and work. In 2014, her family was threatened at home by armed men posing as security officers; the Aware Girls abortion advice helpline has received many threatening calls; and the organization has had to move office twice because of safety concerns.

“We have become refugees in our own country because of the work that we’re doing,” says Saba. “But we are still working with strength and commitment because this is our country.”

Looking ahead, Saba wants Aware Girls to expand its work and build more bridges between young women in Pakistan and Afghanistan. It is also engaging with young women to help them use digital communication more safely: “Women face a lot of harassment online so we’re working with students on how to securely use social media.”

Saba is currently in the process of setting up a New York office for Aware Girls, to improve networking and build connections that will strengthen its work to involve more young women in the political process.

“Activism is in my blood. I cannot imagine myself without this job,” she says. “But we have a long way to go. Patriarchy is everywhere and we have to continue to work on this. We are not anti-men; we are focused on equality.”

Reducing child marriage in Bangladesh

This article first appeared on the Women & Girls Hub from News Deeply

A new four-year study has found that programs that educate girls, teach them about their rights and build their career skills reduce child marriage by up to one third.

Amena (not her real name) had had several marriage proposals by the time she reached 15, but she rejected every one. The schoolgirl, who lives with her parents in southwest Bangladesh, wants to continue her studies and avoid becoming a child bride like many of her friends. While Amena knows her parents will most likely pick her future husband, she is, according to a report recently released on child marriage, one of the lucky girls in Bangladesh who hasn’t been married off before the age of 15.

Young Bangladeshi girls gather round to use a laptop. Photo by Population Council/Lachmin

Two out of three girls in Bangladesh marry before the legal age of 18 and a third will wed before their 15th birthday. Most become mothers while they themselves are still children. But targeted educational support and skills training could see child marriage in Bangladesh drop by up to a third, according to the findings of a four-year study by the Population Council.

Bangladesh has the fourth highest rate of child marriage in the world, and is second only to India in terms of absolute numbers. It’s a practice driven largely by cultural and religious beliefs, poverty and the perceived need to protect girls from harm, including sexual harassment. Research shows that the prevalence of child marriage increases at times of natural disasters, as parents worry about their daughter’s future or struggle to meet basic needs. And, while illegal, the custom of dowry (requiring a bride’s family to pay significant sums to the groom) can result in the youngest adolescent girls being married off, as often they require smaller dowries.

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) maintains that child marriage is a human rights violation, which threatens girls’ lives and health and limits their future prospects. It says child marriage often leads to girls becoming pregnant while still adolescent, increasing the risk of complications in pregnancy or childbirth – a leading cause of death among older adolescents in developing countries.

The Population Council’s Bangladeshi Association for Life Skills, Income and Knowledge for Adolescents (BALIKA) project began in 2012 and has involved more than 9,000 girls aged between 12 and 18 in the rural communities of Khulna, Satkhira and Narail, where child marriage is most prevalent.

Girls across 72 communities in the northwest and southwest of Bangladesh took part in one of three skills-building interventions: educational support through tutoring in math and English (in-school girls) and computing or financial skill training (out-of-school girls); life skills training on gender rights, critical thinking and decision making; or livelihood training in entrepreneurship, mobile phone servicing, photography and basic first aid.

The girls received 100 hours of training, support and mentoring over 18 months, meeting weekly with peers and mentors in safe, girl-only locations – called BALIKA centers – that were housed in their local primary school. In addition to broadening their skills, the aim was for the girls to build their confidence, demonstrate their achievements and raise their profile within the community.

Another 24 communities served as a control to the study, with no such services, education or training provided in these locations. The girls who received educational support or life skills training were 31 percent less likely to be married while still children at the end of the study than girls in the control communities. Those who received livelihood training were 23 percent less likely to be married.

BALIKA infographic - Web Version JPEG

In Bangladesh, efforts to prevent early marriage have focused on the enforcement of laws and policies – so-called “marriage busting” – but little research has been done until now into other interventions. Sajeda Amin, a senior associate who leads the Population Council’s work on livelihoods for adolescent girls, says the BALIKA findings clearly demonstrate the impact of programs on delaying marriage age.

“Now we have not one, but three approaches that are proven to work,” she says. “The BALIKA results show that programs that build girls’ skills and knowledge and elevate their visibility and status in their families and communities while keeping them safe can significantly reduce the average child marriage rate in the community.”

Girl-centered program design was critical to the project’s success, explains Amin. Each center employed a local young woman and a local female schoolteacher to deliver training and education support.

Another key factor was community involvement: “Recruiting two local people was really critical to anchoring the program in the community,” says Amin. “The field staff also met with communities to explain critical points and engaged with them to continue the work.”

Feedback from BALIKA participants indicates greater awareness of rights and more self-confidence. One girl from Pankhali said: “I learned from BALIKA that I can say ‘No’ to a marriage proposal. I learned that if a proposal comes and I am too young to marry, I am able to express my opinion to convince my parents. If I couldn’t convince them, then I would seek out someone in the family who would understand me or else I would consult with my friends.”

The BALIKA project was delivered with a range of partners, including the Dutch government, local NGO The Population Services & Training Center, ICT group mPower and the Center for International Development Issues Nijmegen. Around 38 centers produced a viable plan to follow up the programs, the most sustainable strategy being to use the preexisting local government budget for women and children to fund the centers’ staff salaries.

The findings are cited in a recent report on child marriage in conflict from the Women’s Refugee Commission. The report suggests that child marriage can be reduced when girls have access to education, and recommends that donors and policymakers should support the piloting of child marriage interventions and learning documentation.

Bangladesh has set 2041 as the target date to eliminate child marriage, and the prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, has stated that she wants to outlaw marriage among under-15s by 2021. But a 2015 report by Human Rights Watch claimed the government is not doing enough to reach its targets, while proposals to lower the marriage age for girls to 16 have been vigorously opposed by civil society activists.

Amin at the Population Council concludes: “If we want to effectively reduce child marriage in Bangladesh, we must employ new approaches that empower each girl, engage her family and her community so she is seen as an asset, not as a liability.”