From despair to hope: the story of Neema Lucas from Shinyanga, Tanzania

Imagine that you are a 15-year-old girl married to a 37-year-old man.  As a young girl, you grew up dreaming of becoming a teacher, but this hope shattered when your parents forced you to drop out of school after Grade 7 –at the age of 14—to get married. Your life changed in an instant.  You now rely on your husband to meet your basic needs, but he spends most of his money on alcohol and other women.  You can not find paid work because your education ended when your marriage began. This was the reality for Neema Lucas, a young woman from the Shinyanga region of Tanzania. After twelve months in a marriage she did not choose, she was losing hope that her situation could change.  One day, Neema heard that a local NGO, Agape AIDS Control Program (“Agape”), was putting on a movie at a nearby shop for young women interested in training at the local vocational college.  While watching the film, Neema learned not only that child marriage is illegal in Tanzania, but also that Agape has helped many young women forced into child marriage to obtain a divorce and to enroll in college in order to gain skills for the local marketplace.

Child marriage in Shinyanga

Tanzania has two of the highest rates of child marriage and pregnancy in the world.  And while child marriage is common in Tanzania, it is disproportionately prevalent in the Shinyanga region, with 59% of girls in the region married before the age of 18 (compared to 37% of all Tanzanian girls married before the age of 18). The main drivers of this prevalence are rooted in the local Sikuma culture, which views girls as a source of income since families earn valuable cattle in return for marrying off young daughters.

Agape, established in 2009, was initially founded with the aim of preventing and controlling HIV and AIDS and its effects in the community. However, they quickly realized that child marriage was also causing serious harm – not only affecting the children involved, but also producing exponential losses to the educational and economic prospects of the community.  Agape responded by raising community awareness of the negative impacts of child marriage and by rescuing girls from such marriages. These girls are then supported to enroll back into formal school or vocational training college.

Firelight’s Work in Shinyanga

In 2015, the Firelight Foundation realized that there was a significant role that community-based organizations in Tanzania wanted to play in fighting child marriage and we challenged ourselves and our partners to see if we could tackle it together in the place where it was most prevalent – Shinynaga.  Consistent with our desire for systemic change, Firelight organized a “hotspot” cluster of local grantees, all working in and around Shinyanga.

Since then we have been funding and mentoring four local NGOs and eight community-based organizations—including Agape—to address the problem of child marriage at its epicenter, creating a coordinated network of local organizations at this “hotspot” that has enabled group collaboration and collective action.  Firelight’s partners are looking at the root causes of the problem and addressing it from multiple angles: at the child, family, community and policy levels. Because they are coordinated in their efforts – each one of the organizations plays a different but equally important part.

Impact of the Program

Since Firelight created its “hotspot” cluster, a great deal of progress has been made – each one of the partner organizations began with community dialogues that surfaced real data on the rates of child marriage while also engaging families, schools and the community itself in determining how they might address the problem themselves. The partners have been working closely with the District Government to track and address cases of child marriage and working closely with each other to address the major drivers and consequences of child marriage in the community. The partners have already a seen significant increase in local understanding of the problem of child marriage and in local desire to stop the practice.

On the national level, the partners have also seen success. Due to advocacy done by the partners as well as by other stakeholders, the High Court of Tanzania finally outlawed child marriage in July 2016. Though no small victory, Firelight and our partners know that community awareness and engagement is still critically needed to change local community attitudes and practices so that the law is embraced and enforced.

What does this mean for young girls in Shinyanga?

In May 2015, with funding from Firelight, Agape identified 50 girls who were already married or were at risk of being married. The girls were enrolled at Bujangija Focal Development College for vocational training courses ranging from tailoring, to welding, fabrication, and electrical installation. While the majority of the girls enrolled in tailoring courses, a few chose to enroll in the male-dominated fields of welding and fabrication and electrical installation. Neema Lucas was one of these girls.

Neema chose welding and fabrication because she used to watch the work of a local welder who lived near her house when she was young. She was fascinated by the welding machine and wished she could one day get an opportunity to hold it in her hands.

After enrolling at the college, Neema was scared because the class was full of boys and only a small handful of girls.  She motivated herself to work hard in the especially demanding course, and at the end, her hard work paid off.  Neema passed her exams and graduated in December 2015. In January 2016, she was hired as welder in Shinyanga.  As part of her new job, she receives welding orders from the community for household goods such as gates, stands for stoves, chairs, and tables and constructs them out of various metals.

Neema Lucas is the only female employed at the company. According to her manager, Joseph, Neema was very keen to learn when she joined the company.  Customers are impressed by her work and have come back with more business.  At first, her peers doubted her capabilities, but Neema has proven herself as a skilled welder. Now, she is considered a force to be reckoned with.

Neema says her life has changed for the better since becoming gainfully employed. She is able to look after herself and her mother—something she could never do when she was married. She has regained her sense of hope for her future.


What does this mean for the future of child marriage in Tanzania?

By starting with the root causes of child marriage, in the place where the practice is most prevalent, and by funding a group of community-based organizations to work together in a coordinated way, Firelight and our partners have significant hopes that they might stamp out child marriage in Shinyanga altogether. We also hope to prove a cost-effective, coordinated, community-driven approach to child marriage that could be adapted or replicated anywhere.