Women's role in building peace worldwide relies on education. Whether you are a young girl in the Tropics, a twenty-something woman in Tanzania or any other combination of age and location, your future depends strongly upon your experiences and education during your youth.
Schools teach both practical money-earning smarts and basic attitudes about women's and men's roles. In much of the world, though, schools are ill-suited to provide equal opportunities to girls and boys.
"Educating girls produces many additional socio-economic gains that benefit entire societies," a USAID study declared in 2008. "These benefits include increased economic productivity, higher family incomes, delayed marriages, reduced fertility rates, and improved health and survival rates for infants and children." (USAID is more or less the American equivalent of the Canadian International Development Agency or CIDA. It is a federally funded foreign aid and development organization.)
We must bridge the gap between would-be women learners and the realities of daily life in a poor family where, often, there's no money left to pay school fees and there are many time-consuming, tiring chores around the house or farm.
Building that bridge is a task one organization has tackled head-on in Tanzania.
Project Tembo (Tanzania Education and Micro-Business Opportunity, www.projectembo.org
) has supported about 130 girls by paying education fees, and about 100 more by giving micro-finance loans to kick-start women-owned small businesses.
Meeting the need
Tembo began about 10 years ago, when Jo Marchant and Marian Roks were travelling in Tanzania, the largest country in East Africa. They were visiting a girl whom they had sponsored through an existing child-sponsorship charity.
"They recognized a need, and a desire, amongst the local girls and women for increased means to financially support themselves and their families," Melissa Fennell, a member of Tembo's board of directors, wrote to me on behalf of the entire board.
Improving rural poor people's lives and controlling HIV/AIDS are two top needs in Tanzania, according to the United Nations Girls' Education Initiative webpage about that country.
Yet educating daughters was simply unrealistic--that is, not affordable--for most families in the 7,000-some town of Longido that Marchant and Roks visited. Never mind the nearby cattle-raising Maasai village of Kimokouwa, where women still lived in a very restrictive, male-dominated society.
"With a per capita income of about $1.00 a day, families in Longido and Kimokouwa struggle to provide the basic needs of food and shelter," Fennell wrote to me.
According to the UN, obstacles to women's education in Tanzania include a lack of girl-friendly facilities at schools (clean toilets and drinking water, for instance), a high level of child marriage and pregnancy (pregnant students are often expelled from school), and gendered teaching habits that see girls asked to do the classroom chores, such as fetch water.
Outside school, "girls traditionally serve as caregivers and are burdened when AIDS strikes a family," the UN notes, "preventing daughters from regular school attendance."
Marchant and Roks decided to take things into their own hands, with the support of donors back home in Canada. They launched Project Tembo, which is now both a Canadian charitable organization and what's known as a "trust" in Tanzania.
an interiew with Jo Marchant, Tembo co-founder
Breaking the cycle
The role of such cycle-breaking organizations is important. A woman who has children at a young age and does not work outside the home is arguably more likely to raise her own girls and boys with similar life expectations and attitudes. Education that instills confidence, grants hope and opens career opportunities puts her in a much stronger position.
"The girls and women that Tembo is supporting are not simply looking for a financial handout," Fennell wrote on behalf of the board. "Rather they are actively working to improve their circumstances for themselves and their families."
"Many of the sponsored girls go on to attend vocational school to receive professional training in teaching or office administration, while many of the women in the microfinance program are finding success selling chickens or goats at market or making beaded jewelry or handicrafts for sale."
Maria, one woman Tembo sponsored, attended secondary school and become a teacher thanks to Tembo's financing. From a shy, soft-spoken girl to a confident, full-fledged teacher, Maria's personality grew through her education and job, Arlene McKechnie writes on Tembo's website.
"When we asked her about her classes, her face lit up. She was clearly delighted to tell us about her teaching in the primary school in the village. She told us that she teaches Swahili, Civics and English: Swahili to a Standard (Grade) 3 class of 77 students, Civics to a Standard (Grade) 5 class of 75 students, and English to a Standard (Grade) 6 class of 117 students."
Picture a classroom of 117 kids! "The amazing thing is, the kids are all quiet and attentive," McKechnie writes. "They want to go to school. They want to get an education. They seem to know it is their chance for a better life. But 117 students!"
Students in the Tembo's 2011 English Camp took part in lessons ranging from geography to cooking to improve their English skills and gain confidence.
Photo: Erica Olmstead, 2011 English Camp Volunteer.
Financial support is the cornerstone of Tembo's work. By both funding education for some interested women whose families are unable to do so, and by providing micro-loans to would-be women entrepreneurs who need a financial helping hand, the project makes sure to offer chances to a variety of women.
When a new highway was built through the local area, Tembo saw a chance to make money in a "hotel" business. It opened the Tembo Guesthouse in 2009, and is aiming to have the whole operation self-financing as soon as possible.
The guesthouse employs local residents (many female). It provides a place to stay, a place to hold meetings, and traditional foods for visitors, travelling workers and local tour guides.
"Solar power is used to light the building," Fennell wrote to me. "As well, a water harvesting system ensures that, whenever possible, rain water is collected and used to water the vegetable gardens, which stock the guesthouse kitchen."
Globally, Tembo is not alone in its ambitions and Tanzanian women's aspirations are far from unique. In Buipe, Ghana, this September, Trudy Kernighan, Canadian High Commissioner to Ghana, attended a workshop on Enhancing Women's Capacities for Peace, according to a GhanaWeb news article.
While women and children are often the most vulnerable during moments of conflict, Kernighan told workshop attendees, women and children can equally be the most powerful agents for peace and development. The two-day Buipe session focused on training women in peer mediation.
In Jamaica, more specifically in August Town (a Kingston neighbourhood), a local Women's Action Group is seeking to address male-perpetrated violence in their community.
"We are basically just women empowered to transform the community, and we believe that although August Town is viewed as a very violent community, we have the power to undo that," group president Tashna Silburn told a Jamaican newspaper.
"A lot of these men who are gunmen, we are their parents, we are their sisters, even daughters and girlfriends."
The town's men, too, have a role to play. Be it in Jamaica, Tanzania, or Canada, powerful men are perpetuating ideas that aim to "keep women down."
"Women bring a different perspective to life in general, but especially to the development of the community," said Kenneth Wilson, who runs an August Town community sports organization. "They tend to see things differently from how we look at things. They are more caring, more sharing, they are basically the nurturers of the community," he said.
"Women's ability to choose the number and timing of their births is key to empowering women as individuals, mothers, and citizens, but women's rights go beyond those dealing with their reproductive roles," the US-based organization Population Reference Bureau noted in its study of women's education in the Middle East and North Africa. "Opening economic opportunities to women has far-reaching effects, but those benefits can be reaped only if women receive at least a basic education."
Through education and the work of groups like Project Tembo, we can work to nurture the nurturers and promote attitudes that will break the poverty cycle many women currently live in.
For more information about Project Tembo, or to volunteer (most volunteer opportunities are in Canada, but some do exist in Tanzania), visit www.projectembo.org
. Be sure to check out their upcoming events page for fundraisers and more!
Adrian Larose writes on peace and environment issues.