Sophia Mwakagenda's Unfinished Business

This letter contains legal commitments to protect the 12-year old girl from forced marriages (click to enlarge image - 256K PDF)

A 12-year old girl in Tanzania might someday look back on her childhood and wonder about the woman who saved her future.

The girl was forcibly married to a 75-year old man just three days before Sophia Mwakagenda arrived in her community to speak at a rally about gender rights. Mwakagenda is women's co-ordinator with the Tanzanian Women & Youth Development Society and a graduate of the Global Change Leaders program at Coady International Institute, Saint Francis Xavier University, in Canada.

When she heard about the young girl's circumstances, not uncommon in some pastoral tribal societies in Tanzania, she designed a strategy to rescue her.

"I decided to get the authorities and the media involved," says Mwakagenda. "I also spoke to Maasai men about the health risks to these girls and to warn them that they could be imprisoned if they refuse to let girls continue their schooling."

She also discovered that the head teacher at the girl's school was bribed with 200,000 Tanzanian shillings (CDN $120.00) so she could be released from classes and made available for marriage.

Sophia Mwakagenda photographed at Coady International Institute in 2012.

A relentless Mwakagenda pressured local police and the local politician to become involved. Not long after, the elderly husband promised to release the girl from her obligations. A legal letter was drafted, and because the man could not read or write, he endorsed it with an inked thumbprint. The teacher and local political leader also signed the letter, promising to protect the girl. She is now back in school.

"Elders, family members and teachers will often sell young girls to rich elders as a means of getting quick wealth," says Mwakagenda, a married mother of three girls and two boys. "It is seen as a custom, even though these girls are not mature enough to safely bear children and then care for a family."

This champion of women's rights says educating Maasai women about their rights can be difficult, because the traditional men don't let them attend public rallies. Some husbands relent after they've gone through one of her training  sessions on gender rights, and promise to let their wives attend future rallies.

Sophia Mwakagenda promotes gender rights at a public rally in Tanzania.

Mwakagenda cites a Plan International 2012 report that estimates four million girls in sub-Saharan countries get married before their 18th birthday. She also refers to a Coady Institute case study on Kakenya Ntaiya*, a Kenyan woman leader who helps empower Maasai girls through educational and training opportunities. It was during her time at the Coady Institute that she learned advocacy skills which she regularly puts into practice. She also rubbed shoulders with other women leaders from around the globe who are reaching out to create positive changes in their communities.

"I know there are more children that we can help," says Mwakagenda. "Fighting against early and forced marriages is not finished. Let us fight hard to rescue our Tanzanian girls."

*Read the case study on Kakenya Ntaiya here. (530K PDF)