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A valued tradition is used to teach Tanzanian girls about HIV, health

December 03, 2012 —

In the Swahili communities of East Africa, older women called manyakanga often guide young girls into adulthood. Traditionally, families hire manyakanga to lead their daughters through several days of an initiation into adulthood. These women teach the girls about puberty, sex and the traditional roles of husbands and wives. FHI 360's UJANA (Kiswahili for "youthfulness") project makes sure that reproductive health information is included in the rite of passage, which help girls understand their sexuality and choices at a critical time in their lives.

FHI 360 and the local nongovernmental organization Partnership for Youth Development (PAYODE) worked together to train more than 40 Tanzanian manyakanga and musicians to fold HIV prevention into a valued cultural practice.

As respected elders in their communities, the manyakanga act as intergenerational mentors who lead girls ages 10 to 18 through discussions on hygiene, menstruation taboos and marriage expectations. Since the UJANA trainings were piloted in 2008 with funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development, more than 450 initiated girls have also learned about basic anatomy and reproductive biology, the risks of early pregnancy, the benefits of delaying sex and how to avoid contracting HIV. These are crucial messages for Tanzanian girls and young women, who are vulnerable to HIV infection and unintended pregnancy; young women ages 20 to 24 have higher HIV prevalence rates (6.3 percent) than males of the same age (1.7 percent), and the country's 2010 demographic and health survey noted that almost a quarter of girls ages 15 to 19 are already mothers or pregnant.

Asma, a 14-year-old who was part of the revamped initiation in the Coast Region, found the additional information helpful and felt empowered to share her knowledge about reproductive health with other young women. "We spread all the good news that we learned. Our friends wish they had done the same initiations. They missed something important," said Asma.

The chairwoman of Asma's initiation group, Blandina Mbagi, said: "There is a big, big difference between girls who go through our initiations and girls who go through other initiations. These [girls] know the risks; they become careful."

UJANA and four partners will continue working with manyakanga in both Swahili and non-Swahili ethnic communities.