At the age of 16, Sarah Kihongo's life was not like other teenagers. She was a victim of neglect and abuse, who lost her parents at a very tender age. The trauma to get pregnant as a schoolgirl in Tanzania, Sarah, now 37, knows too well. Not only was she forced to drop out of school, but was also was pushed in a dark hole of stigma. Sarah takes deep breaths and long pauses as she recalls how her life changed 20 years ago.
At 16, she arrived at Matumaini centre in Iringa with her six-month-old baby. This was the only place that was willing to receive her with open arms.
Some girls like Sarah are denied education either due to failure or poor condition of the family, parents send them away to relatives because they cannot afford to raise them, some molested by relatives, they have to endure poor nutrition, no life skills and certainly no care.
Today, in Tanzania, all these groups are at an increased risk of neglect, abuse and stigmatisation.
Following the President John Magufuli's decision on schoolgirls who become pregnant would not be allowed to finish their studies in public schools after giving birth, added to one more factor where girls like Sarah will be denied education and will continue to remain victims of neglect.
As she recollects her story, Sarah continues.
"Life was difficult bearing a child at that age - not physically but psychologically. I felt sick every single day stigmatized by my neighbours and relatives. I lost my parents when I was a kid and my grandmother took me up. It was difficult for her to raise me, we used to eat from the little money she made selling alcohol," Sarah stopped.
After a minute's pause she continued that Matumaini gave her hope to believe in determination. She graduated from Matumaini in the year 2000, and has never looked back. The 36-year old mother, teacher and a mentor has a full time job at Matumaini.
"I want other girls to know, who are going through such neglect, that pregnancy should not be an end to education. Those who can afford to study, they need to work harder and not take a single day for granted and for those girls who have dropped in life like the way I did, they need to get back on their feet and fight harder."
Matumaini Centre in Iringa, a town in Southern highlands of Tanzania, is making efforts in restoring faith and hope by making a difference to their lives. The centre is identifying such group of girls and creating an environment safe enough for them to integrate into the society by giving them an identity, profession and dignity. Sister Ceny San Pedro from the Philippines founded the centre in 1990, and Hellen Nkunda currently directs the NGO. Hellen said, "The centre initially began working with adolescent mothers in Tanzania because Sister Ceny witnessed that they are neglected members of the society and most of them fall pregnant through ignorance of reproductive issues and society is usually unsympathetic towards them." The centre now recognises orphaned children, girls abandoned by parents and relatives, victimised teenagers and girls who cannot continue their education due to varied reasons.
Since 1990, the centre has been able to help 640 girls and currently manages to support 28 girls of ages between 34 - 14. Hellen adds that the centre encourages girls to become independent where they provide a two-year vocational training program that includes tailoring, weaving, pottery, knitting, Kiswahili and English as business languages, mathematics, computer skills and practise good health care.
Stories of abandoned teenagers
Despite pregnancy, Hidaya Nasibu sets as a role model for many victimised girls. She advanced herself with determination. "The first child who I came with, I was 18. The child passed away. I got married and was blessed with two more children. During the second child, my husband abandoned me. I was scared initially but not broken. Today as a single mother, I managed to put both my children in school and I am a full time working mother," added the 41 years old mother. Hidaya finds an unexplainable comfort at the centre and now works at the centre making handbags, laptop bags, wallets, table mats and so on.
Rachel Kasuva who will graduate this year from Matumaini is known for her tailoring skills at the centre. The 18 years old failed standard 7 and could not go for further secondary education. The parents lost hope and had zilch means to enrol her into a private school. In fact, they sent her away to the relatives because they could no more afford to raise a girl. But Rachel was determined to get back to track. In a small district in Iringa called Pawaga, a pastor at her local church informed her about the centre where she joined the vocational program two years back and is determined to make bigger changes. "I have decided to help other destitute girls in becoming responsible citizens. I meet young girls from all walks of life with problems that sadden you, some stories unbearable to hear. But you learn from ignorance," Rachel said. Currently, Rachel gets her pocket money from the batik she makes and sells, and also has a good number of clientele who are impressed by her tailoring skills.
In learning more about these girls, Hellen added, "After falling pregnant, these girls become frustrated. The parents disregard them. When they come to the centre, they get to understand that their attitude needs to change and we help these girls shape into a better character."
The teenage mothers and abandoned girls were in a pathetic condition when they first came to the centre, some undernourished. The care and support provided by this centre is done at no cost and they rely on donations from sponsors. Now, the girls at the centre dress well, talk obediently, have a better sense of life and moreover, are educated.
The centre's consultant Bovan Mwakyambiki has been working since 2011 and has seen little or none government involvement. "Despite a loan of 1 million in 10 years, which we paid back with great difficulty, I have seen no support from the local government.
The officials need to understand what this centre does - it is tough work to remould a girl into a responsible citizen, the centre is playing a big role to eradicate any misdeeds conducted by these neglected girls. Matumaini identifies them and nurtures them. The local government should play a bigger part financially, professionally and make necessary follow-ups to address challenges," he expressed.