As a woman/girl/budding adult living in 21st century America I often forget how lucky I am. I go to college. I can vote. I can wear whatever clothing I want to wear, date who I want to date, read what I want to read, and write to my heart’s content, about any subject. Life is good. The opportunities I have here are endless, and it often takes traveling to a country where women have considerably less opportunity to fully realize this truth.
While studying in Tanzania this semester, I was able to meet many remarkable women. These women (doctors, professors, mothers, and students) taught me that life is not always easy for the average African woman. Even in the United Republic of Tanzania, a rather well functioning democracy, overall rights for women rank low on the totem poll. Polygamy and prostitution are both legal, and the large amount of poverty renders it difficult for most women to demand more rights.
Widows are ostracized; cases of gender-based violence against women are high, female genital mutilation still exists, and many women are expected to keep their subservient, domestic roles in the household.
Obviously, this is a generalization. I met plenty of women in Africa who were well-educated, and “liberated,” in the Western sense of the term. Still, when living in the developed city of Dar Es Salaam, it is easy to forget the 70% of the population who live in rural areas. Admittedly, women in these regions are poorer and have less access to their own money, land rights, education, and health care.
It is easy to believe these statements when you read them out of an overpriced college textbook in Ohio. It is not so easy to comprehend these facts when you see them firsthand. Most of the women I saw carrying jugs of water on their heads back to their mud huts haven’t received much higher than a sixth grade education. There I was, an idealistic college girl, observing these women carry about their strenuous routine. Irony at its finest. I felt guilty staring.
Some of the women who taught me the most were the doctors I met at my internship. During my three-month stay in Tanzania, I interned at the Medical Women’s Association of Tanzania (MEWATA), a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting women’s health in Tanzania. A group of female doctors formed MEWATA in 1987, and the organization has been functioning ever since (www.mewata.org).
Helping out at MEWATA, I quickly realized the weighty task their NGO has decided to tackle. Breast cancer and other diseases that affect women are highly stigmatized in many African countries. Women do not have the money, transportation, or time to travel to one of the national hospitals for diagnosis and treatment. In addition, women are often viewed as incompetent and undesirable once they are diagnosed with breast cancer, cervical cancer, HIV/AIDS, and many other diseases, which only discourages them from seeking care. In many areas of Africa, women’s health concerns remain largely “hush hush.”
Breast cancer is one disease that often goes unnoticed. To help change this truth, MEWATA began conducting annual breast cancer screening campaigns. One of their larger initiatives, the screenings are held in five different regions in Tanzania, most of them in remote, rural areas. Without these screenings, thousands of women would remain unaware of their health problems. Yet even with MEWATAs help, they are a small NGO with limited funds and thousands remain undiagnosed across Africa.
Back at home in Philadelphia, I went to the doctor today for a routine physical. It was a pleasant visit, where I chatted with my doctor and received a thorough diagnosis. After my visit, I bought a coffee at the local convenient store, Wawa. I hastily grabbed a coffee cozy on my way out and slipped it onto my 16 oz. French vanilla concoction.
I almost didn’t notice, but as I stood in line waiting to pay, I looked down at the cardboard coffee protector to see an advertisement for the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. The ad encouraged women to get a breast examination and sign up for the annual Race for the Cure. It suddenly struck me how wonderful this widespread campaign is. It is drastically different from the state of breast cancer awareness in Tanzania–a virtually non-existent campaign with much lower funds, capacity, and effectiveness.
Taking a sip of my French vanilla cappuccino on my drive home, I felt that my experience in Tanzania had come full circle. Even though an average day in the shoes of most GoGirls, like myself, is convenient and privileged, this is not the case for the majority of women around the world.
To learn more about MEWATA and other women’s-related NGOs visit www.mewata.org.