“Many people think that only boys can become electricians,” says 21-year-old Grace. “I am happy to disappoint them.” With help from Salesian missionaries in Dodoma, Tanzania, a growing number of young women like Grace are shattering gender stereotypes through their participation in vocational training and workforce development programs.
This hasn’t always been the case. As recently as three years ago, girls comprised only 11 percent of the student population enrolled in Salesian-run vocational schools throughout the country. Today, thanks in part to a targeted awareness campaign called “Binti Thamani” (literally, “precious girl”) -- an ongoing effort that has already reached 3,000 girls -- missionaries have more than tripled the number of female students in their training programs, to 38 percent.
“As a traditionally patriarchal society, Tanzania remains challenged by outdated and deep-rooted attitudes about the role of girls and women in society,” says Father Mark Hyde, director of Salesian Missions.
In fact, according to the United Nations, the country ranks near the bottom of its Gender Equality Index -- a means of measuring disparities between the sexes, and quantifying the opportunity costs of unequal access to education, health care and other crucial services. As a direct result, Fr. Mark explains, “far too many girls do not even realize that they can attend vocational training courses.”
Others, like Grace, simply cannot afford it -- even if they know girls are welcome. Her story is a common one: her impoverished parents needed her to work, so she dropped out of high school in order to prepare and sell simple meals from a street cart. While this provided some short-term financial relief for her family, it also limited Grace’s future potential. Without a secondary education, she risked young motherhood, early marriage and a lifetime of poverty -- among other adverse consequences.
“We know that educated girls and young women are better equipped to live as independent adults, and to make positive decisions that affect themselves, their families and their communities,” says Fr. Mark. “Or, as the Tanzanian proverb says, ‘educating a girl educates an entire society!’”
Fortunately for Grace, Sister Sanctina Tomeka encouraged her to enroll in a Salesian-run vocational technical school. There, she not only trained to be an electrician, she was also the only girl in the program -- and performed at the highest level among her class. After successfully navigating the challenges of a two-month internship, including overcoming language barriers, she excitedly looks forward to a long and fruitful career. And she certainly serves as a role model for young women who will follow in her footsteps.
“Don’t look at me as just a girl,” Grace says. “Look at what I am capable of doing!”
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