NGOs advance girls’ access to sexual & reproductive health rights and services – through engaging boys and men

“I used to live in a way that I did not know would negatively impact me and put my life at risk. I smoked marijuana every day with a group of young men in my village. We had a secret location where we would meet at 10 pm every evening to smoke weed. I was the only girl in the group. January 5th is a day I will never forget. As usual, I planned to meet up with the boys to smoke. Two of the boys from the group joined me that evening. I had no idea that my friends – boys I had bonded with for over two years – planned to rape me. Suddenly, our typical fun night turned into a nightmare, as they grabbed me and started undressing me. I started screaming and shouting for help. I guess I was lucky that night. There was a bodaboda (motor-cycle taxi) rider near the area and when he heard me screaming he came and rescued me from the group. The bodaboda rider took me home, and on the way he advised me about sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and the risk of engaging with bad company.”

This is one of many survivor stories that young women tell, while many others remain untold. This survivor escaped without getting raped or being seriously hurt or even worse, being killed. Had she been raped, she could have contracted one of many sexually transmitted infections, including HIV, or she could have fallen pregnant.

It is for this reason that HEAL (Health | Empowerment | Aid | Light) International, a member of MenEngage Tanzania (MET) network based in Arusha, north-eastern Tanzania, has been working with young men to create awareness around STIs. Through a programme called “Health Ambassador”, HEAL International establishes and runs clubs in secondary schools, through which it facilitates discussions led by male Health Officers to empower young men on issues around sexual health. The organisation specifically engages young men in learning about gender-based violence and sexually transmitted infections so that they cannot only have a healthier life, but also advocate for sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) of girls and women.

Furthermore, HEAL International reaches out to engage boys who are out of schools well as men to ensure that they also access the same education.Men and out of school boys have been provided with platforms to discuss issues regarding SRHR through dialogues with bodaboda groups and football teams. The young men HEAL International works with are able to share their sexual health concerns, have a sense of support from each other, and learn new transferable skills about cascading the knowledge to their peers and community as a whole. HEAL International aspires to create a generation of young men who are ambassadors of health equity, young men who are able to fight against gender-based violence, and young men who are advocates of healthier communities that are able to access SRHR services.

The bodaboda rider who came to the rescue of the young woman at the beginning of this story is one of the youths benefiting from health awareness education run by HEAL International. He is one of the transformed young men who became passionate about championing women’s and children’s rights in Arusha, Tanzania.

Almost 480 kilometres from Arusha, in the economic hub of Tanzania, Dar es Salaam, another member of MenEngage Tanzania, Transformative and Integrative Build out for All (TIBA), is working on engaging men to address myths and perceptions that hinder women’s and girls’ access to sexual and reproductive health (SRH) rights and services. The organisation does this through dialogue sessions at popular venues called Kijiwecha Kahawa. Kijiwecha Kahawasare popular make-shift coffee shops that you will find in many parts of Tanzania where citizens gather together to discuss current affairs in politics, sports, the economy and so on. In TIBA’s case, it gathers men together at these coffee hubs to discuss issues affecting the welfare of women and girls in their communities.

Through the platform, men are able to visualise and adequately understand issues pertaining to teen pregnancies, child marriage and youth-friendly SRHR services at health centres.

“There is a dearth of knowledge among community members on how their choices affect the welfare of women and girls. Girls are subjected to teen pregnancy, dropping out of school, sexual harassment and a miserable life in general due to cultural practices that perpetuate a male-dominated system. Young girls receive confusing information about sex as they make the transition from childhood to adulthood. Most end up making uninformed decisions when it comes to relationships, as they become persuaded to engage in sexual intercourse with older men who are already sexually experienced. There is a need to engage more men because they are key decision-makers in families and are given more priorities in decision-making within our communities. Thus, enlightening them about the consequences of harmful cultural beliefs and practices could generate sustainable results for the well-being and development of girls,” commented Musa Abdalah, a man taking part in a recent discussion at one Kijiwe cha Kahawa.

The sessions, which intend to sensitise the community to adopt community-driven actions to promote human rights, especially women’s and girls’ rights, have reached more than 400 men from diverse backgrounds in Dar es Salaam.

HEAL Tanzania
A Kijiwe cha Kahawa dialogue

The model adopted by HEAL International and TIBA reflect the values of MenEngage Tanzania, a member of MenEngage Africa, an alliance that works with men and boys, alongside women’s rights activists and movements, to advance gender justice, human rights and social justice in the Africa region.

Local non-governmental organisation (NGO), Children’s Dignity Forum (CDF) is the Secretariat of MenEngage Tanzania network, which is also vested in addressing norms and cultural practices that hinder women and children from accessing SRH rights and services. It mobilises men and boys into “Fathers Groups” and equips them with adequate knowledge and skills pertaining to gender equality, child protection, positive parenting and access to, and acquisition of, SRH services by girls and women in CDF targeted areas.

According to Koshuma Mtengeti, Executive Director of CDF, “Women and girls constitute a segment of Tanzania’s population that has for a long time been subjected to various degrees of inequality and exclusion. Clinging to cultures and traditions that are evidently harmful to their human rights is unacceptable and that must be denounced and rejected outright. A sure way to reject this is to target and involve men and boys in efforts to change the status quo. It is often men and boys who abuse the rights of women and girls, as they have been socialised into the system of patriarchy that strips women and girls of their rights. In order to turn things around, they are a crucial audience to bring on board – alongside women and girls.”

HEAL Tanzania

HEAL Tanzania
Sections of Fathers Groups during the dialogues on SRHR

This story has been compiled by Yared Bagambilana, Co-Ordinator of MenEngage Tanzania (MET) Network and edited by Khopotso Bodibe, Communications and Media Co-Ordinator for MenEngage Africa (MEA) Alliance.