Starting conversations on menstruation and family planning in Tanzania
19-year-old Melanie Msoka writes about her work breaking down the stigmas around periods, family planning and puberty in her home country.
Before I went to high school, I learned about many subjects, like mathematics, English and literature, sciences, bookkeeping, commerce, Swahili and informational technology. But I was never taught about menstruation and family planning. I did not have a clear understanding on the different changes that happen during puberty for girls and boys. Though it was taught briefly in biology, the content was more academic than something that could be practically applied in daily life. I didn't really think it was important for me to know about these things at my age since I wasn't pregnant or expecting a child soon.
In Tanzania, after graduating from form four, the graduates have to wait for seven months at home for their results of their national examination before joining high school. During this time, teen pregnancy rates increase — and it forces about 8,000 girls to drop out of school every year. In 2018, there were 69,000 teen pregnancies reported in Tanzania, which shows that early pregnancy is one of the most burning issues for youth in the country.
If students learn about menstruation and family planning before they enter high school, we could help stop these high rates of teen pregnancy. But these topics are considered taboo in Tanzanian culture. This is because our elders are afraid it will encourage youth to be more sexually active if they talk about it.
I am part of a gap year program led by The Girls Foundation of Tanzania, an NGO working to teach students about menstruation, puberty, adolescence and family planning. While we wait to join high school, we learn important life skills and are educated in sexual and reproductive health.
As part of our gap year, students at The Girls Foundation of Tanzania hold training workshops at different schools to teach our peers what we’ve learned about sexual and reproductive health. I was very excited to teach other students about issues like menstruation, developing healthy relationships and how to prevent sexually transmitted diseases. In these workshops, we also discuss the importance of decision-making and goal setting. Without goals, students are more likely to make unhealthy decisions.
It was a bit scary to speak in front of our peers and share with them all the information that we learned. I worried if the students would take the information seriously? Or would they just listen to us and then ignore it because they were too occupied with academic issues? Were they going to make fun of us?
I knew what I was going to communicate was very important for their lives and that gave me more courage. During my gap year, I ran workshops for boys and girls in six secondary schools and one high school. Despite being in secondary school, the students had many questions about these topics, which surprised me. While it was hard to begin these conversations, they were so valuable.
At my workshop at Karatu High School, there were 715 young men in the audience and they asked lots of questions. I wanted to help them understand their changing bodies and clarify the misleading ideas that they had, particularly on menstruation. I was so nervous at first, but my past experiences teaching these subjects made me confident. These young men were actually very interested in learning about menstruation and early pregnancy specifically so they could help protect their younger sisters and also be able to prevent and plan for pregnancy in their own relationships. They asked if all girls had the same menstrual cycle and if it was possible for a girl to miss her cycle without being pregnant. Following the workshop, I felt on top of the world. Being able to share my thoughts and ideas made me more confident and less shy.
Though I know I can’t change the lives of every student in every school I visited, I always put my heart into doing my very best at all the workshops. The experience made me realize that like Gandhi said, I can “be the change that I want to see” in my country for my generation. I am now planning to start a health club in high school where I can continue to share this valuable information.
In my family, I am the last born out of seven children. I am very certain that if my mother and father had learned about adolescence, puberty and family planning when they were young, they may not have chosen to have as many children as they have — though they don't regret having us as we are blessings to them. With the right education, I want to make sure every student in Tanzania has the knowledge and resources to decide for themselves if and when they want to be parents.
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About the author
Melanie Msoka is a 19-year-old student from Tanzania. She plans to pursue a career as a pathologist.