Mary Kategile, what were your own experiences at school when you where a kid?
I grew up in Tanzania in a village in poor conditions. At that time, not many girls went to school, but I was able to attend primary school in the village. But after that I didn't go to secondary school. Simply because I was a girl. The cultural and family expectations for me were different, I was supposed to get married. My family was too poor to send all the children to school, so they concentrated on the boys.
Today you have a university degree and are in the process of getting your doctorate. How did your educational career continue?
A few years after I finished primary school, there was a government campaign for all Tanzanians to learn to read and write. I was selected to join that program and became a teacher for adults as part of this campaign.For two years we gave lessons for adults in different places. After that I got married at the age of 17. Then I went for a short training and became a kindergarten teacher, for which I did two more six-month training courses. I had children, but continued teaching, for a total of seven years.
Still without secondary education.
Yes, that's right. I caught up on this education when all my seven children were already born. There were evening classes. That wasn't easy, I already had so many other tasks and was responsible for a lot. But I had learned a lot more by then. My husband, initially an engineer, was training to be a pastor. And I studied with him, attended the seminaries as a guest. Later I took on many tasks in the women's work of the church, but I did not feel well equipped for it. So I decided to catch up on my schooling. And when I finished, I applied for university.
And that just worked out?
I didn't get any support from the state, but my private environment supported me and I did my bachelor's degree. This was recognised and I stayed on as a teacher at the college. Later I had the chance to do my Master's in theology in the USA. And now I am working on my doctoral thesis.
Is your biography a typical Tanzanian woman's biography?
Not really. There are few who go this way. I must admit that It was not easy, it is by the grace of God almighty who enabled me to work hard. But sometimes I was also supported by my friends on fee payments for my children.
How has the education system in Tanzania changed since you were at school?
In state schools, school fees no longer must be paid. Nevertheless, the cost of school materials exceeds the budget of many poor families. And unfortunately, the quality of school education has declined. Many schools are overcrowded. In some classes, 80 to 100 children sit with one teacher.
And there are few teachers who are being employed every year. Furthermore, teacher education has its challenges as well. There are also big differences in quality between urban and rural schools in the area of learning and teaching materials and access to information. The urban schools have more access to teaching and learning materials and facilities that those in rural
According to statistics, almost two million children in Tanzania do not go to school. What are the reasons?
Partly it is financial. The children lose interest and patience in school when they see that they could already earn something. They think they are just wasting their time at school. This mainly affects the boys. Several children in urban areas decide to devote their time in securing income instead of attending classes. For instance, in the place where I live boys are engaged in riding tricycles, so called Bajaji. This has become an official business and a large part of the population depends on them. They earn some money but most of them live from hand to mouth hence their future is not clear. For that reason, primary education or to enroll for secondary education does not seem appealing to them.
The girls are often very involved in the family and take on many tasks there. And there are social and cultural norms that do not see schooling as an important part for girls' and women's lives. There are still some tribes who prefer their girls to marry at the very young age. Despite the fact that the government has put very strong legislation on this issue.
You once said that the education policy in Tanzania states that boys and girls have the same right to education, but this is not implemented. Can you elaborate on that?
Despite the efforts of the government to make sure that all boys and girls get education there are some parents who do not see the importance of education for their children. Socially it has become common that girls are intitled to get only primary education and not higher than that. That's about the power of the cultural and social norms I just mentioned. Of course, there are families who support their daughters and allow them to get an education. But the assumption that a woman should marry and have children in any case is very entrenched. Yet schooling seems a waste of time. Many girls attend primary school, but their numbers decrease in secondary school and even fewer in university.
About 30 per cent of girls attend secondary school, but many drop out. According to Unesco figures, about 600,000 girls dropped out of secondary school in 2019. What are the reasons?
The figure is alarming. The main reason for dropouts is teenage pregnancy. Of course, there are other reasons: economic reasons, family conflicts or work at home, for example looking after younger siblings. But a big problem is the early pregnancies, or the way they are handled. Girls in Tanzania are forbidden to attend school during pregnancy and after giving birth. This is only possible at private schools, but they charge fees.
How can the situation be improved?
We advocate for girls and women. We lobby female members of parliament to demand a change in the law so that young women can continue to have access to education despite being pregnant.
We also introduce girls to boarding schools in areas where the society is reluctant in girl’s education, especially in pastoralist communities. And we make hostels available for girls who stay at distant places from school, so we make sure there is nor harm to them or any sort of danger.
We get support from NGOs like Mission 21, sponsors and religious organizations to pay for school fees and education requirements of girls.
You work on many levels to empower young women in Tanzania. Can you describe this work in concrete terms?
We inform the girls and young women about their options and support them in finding their way. Pregnancy and dropping out of school are not the end, we have to convey that to these girls. For example, there are vocational training courses to which they have access - among others, these training courses are supported by Mission 21. We show alternatives and options so that the young women can take control of their lives.
So you help with training opportunities?
Yes, we arrange training places and in the joint project of Mission 21 and the Moravian Church these are also supported financially, as well as further schooling for disadvantaged children and young people. Unfortunately, we sometimes don't reach the pregnant schoolgirls because they don't even dare to accept offers. Raising awareness and providing information are therefore also very important. We talk directly to the schoolgirls in the schools.
Is there education about sexuality at school?
There are biology lessons and reproduction is also a topic there. But it is only taught in secondary school, too late in this situation. We are trying politically to get the subject of teenage pregnancies included in the curriculum.
What about access and information on contraceptive options?
This is an important issue. Unfortunately, there is a lot of resistance from religious circles. There is a perception that information on contraception encourages young women to become sexually active at a very young age.
What is it like for you as a pastor to speak publicly about this topic?
It is very difficult. I can inform when I speak directly to young women, but in a public situation it is very difficult.
What are the prospects for women who go to university?
They have good opportunities. They are informed about the different possibilities to shape their lives. But again, pregnancies are often the reason for dropouts, more women than men drop out. Here, too, we hold talks to inform and empower female students.
Are there any governmental activities to enable young women to go to university?
No, these are all private initiatives or projects by non-governmental organizations. But we need a commitment from the authorities and leaders in religion and politics to promote girls' and women's education.
There is a female president in Tanzania now. Are changes visible?
Yes. She is committed to education and a better life for women and girls. That makes me hopeful.
What are your wishes for women and girls in Tanzania?
I wish for them to be empowered and supported. That they can recognise their own value and stand up for themselves. Most women in Tanzania think they have to live for other people. It is okay to take care of others, but I wish that these women and girls would also take care of themselves. They make a huge contribution to society, they contribute to the economy and peace in the country. They are important! I wish they would realise that.
Interview: Claudia Buess/Miriam Glass