Words by Katherine Gougeon | Reading time: 5 minutes
Pursue the degree no one thought possible – and apply it to a national health crisis
Growing up in the Kisarawe District in the Coast Region of Tanzania, Magreth was a girl who seemed capable of anything.
In primary school, she was the enthusiastic and familiar face of educational videos and fundraising campaigns for the Kisarawe Children’s Rights Club. Off-camera, she developed a love of writing by corresponding with her Plan International sponsor in Sweden. By 11, she was contributing stories to Watoto Bomba, a book for children about coping with everyday challenges.
“We told stories about how to keep yourself safe in all situations: at school or when swimming. Even how not to get an electric shock when ironing – which I wrote from personal experience!” she recalls with a laugh.
In secondary school, during a Plan International #GirlsTakeover event in which she “took over” as a program unit manager, Magreth discovered the joy of leading: “At 13, I got to conduct meetings, sign documents and do fieldwork. It was fun – but it was serious!”
Although Magreth had many talents, everyone was shocked and confused when, at age 14, she announced her intention to become a doctor.
Not just an ordinary girl
In a community where Magreth says many girls are married and pregnant before 16, no woman had ever pursued medicine. Was it even possible? Her family worried that she’d be wasting her time. Magreth responded by adding physics and biology to her course load. “I wanted to prove everybody wrong,” she says. “I wanted to be not just an ordinary girl.”
With Magreth’s admission to Muhimbili University came hard work, long hours and the stress of paying for tuition and textbooks. But she pushed through. In a country where many regions have as few as one doctor per 100,000 people, Magreth became increasingly focused on the reality that access to health care was a struggle for many. “Often, by the time people check into a hospital, they are in advanced stages of cancer or heart disease,” she explains. “I thought to myself, ‘If I want to be a good physician, I have to prevent these diseases from happening.’”
Stopping disease before it starts
In addition to running the university’s Students One Health Innovation Club, Magreth participated in an initiative to translate medical information from English to Swahili and publish it on a website so that non-English speakers could proactively access information about their health and well-being. The name of this project was Daktari Mkononi – “a doctor at hand.”
Get an education.
Forge a seemingly impossible career path.
Empower others to do the same.
By the Numbers
• Only one in four girls completes secondary school.
• Almost one in three girls marries before she reaches the age of 18, and one in four has her first child before the age of 18.
• Less than 1% of girls ages 15 to 19 are both in school and married.
In Year One, the Keeping Adolescent Girls in School project...
• Trained 362 community leaders to mobilize support for adolescent girls’ education and sexual and reproductive health and rights.
• Selected 118 community facilitators to teach girls about their right to education and how to advocate for gender equality.
• Hosted 118 community discussions to raise awareness about the importance of girls’ education.
• Distributed 236 education savings group kits to parents, to help families develop the financial ability to support girls’ education.
Now in Year Two, the project continues to keep adolescent girls in school through initiatives such as savings groups, which provide uniforms, school kits and more for girls in addition to providing supports at a community level.
Last year, Magreth started working with the African Union COVID-19 Vaccination Bingwa Initiative (under the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention) to mobilize youth to get vaccinated. “Young people feel invincible against COVID-19 but also fear the vaccine will sap their energy and make them infertile,” Magreth explains. “We have to understand their thinking so we can challenge it in a way that catches their attention.”
Magreth is now 27, and her mission to stop diseases before they start has brought her to the University of Dar es Salaam, where she is pursuing a master’s degree in public health. The talents she nurtured as a child continue to serve her well. Leveraging her platform as the Tanzania chapter leader for the Young Professionals Chronic Disease Network, Magreth writes articles, appears on radio shows and does public speaking and advocacy work on topics related to women’s rights, reproductive health, breastfeeding and taking care of babies through depression – the issues young women in her country face every day.
Paying it forward
Looking back, Magreth describes her journey as “very, very hard” but is encouraged by the progress she sees in her community. Some girls are going to secondary school and even university, which was unheard of a decade ago.
As a Plan International youth advocate in Tanzania, Magreth encourages this path every day – even on her day off. On Saturdays, when she returns home to socialize with family and friends and sing in the church choir, she also leads empowerment workshops for girls. For Magreth, it’s time well spent: “When you empower someone to fight for their rights and their dreams, they also have a chance to empower others.”
In Tanzania, family and community resistance is just one of the barriers girls face when it comes to education. If there are financial challenges, girls are pulled from school. If a school doesn’t have a washroom for girls, they stay home when they’re menstruating. Early and forced marriage and pregnancy put an end to a girl’s education in over 99% of cases.
Working in conjunction with the government as well as community organizations, Plan International has launched the Keeping Adolescent Girls in School project in the Geita and Kigoma Regions of northern Tanzania. The project’s Year One goal was to move the needle on girls’ education by strengthening girls’ abilities to exercise their rights and make decisions about their sexual and reproductive health. A critical aspect of the initiative is engaging parents and communities in the conversation and providing practical support toward helping families educate their girls.
How Plan International Helped
From the time she was 11, Magreth was contributing stories to Watoto Bomba, a book for children about coping with everyday challenges. Today, she continues to share information with children about their rights.
When Magreth announced that she would become a doctor, her family worried she was wasting her time chasing that dream. “I wanted to prove everybody wrong,” she says.
“I wanted to be not just an ordinary girl.”
Magreth leads empowerment workshops for girls where she teaches them about their sexual and reproductive health and rights.
When you empower someone to fight for their rights and their dreams, they also have a chance to empower others.”
In Tanzania, where some regions have as few as one doctor per 100,000 people, access to health care is a struggle for many. As the first woman in her community to study medicine, Magreth made this problem her problem. In this short film, you’ll discover how the former Plan International sponsored child turned intention into action.
“Often, by the time people check into a hospital, they are in advanced stages of cancer or heart disease. … If I want to be a good physician, I have to prevent these diseases from happening.”
In this short film, Natsumi speaks candidly about life as a daughter, sister, role model and mentor in a community where 1 in 5 adolescents is pregnant.
What is missing in society? What is missing in families? What is missing overall so that we stop seeing these kinds of problems?” she asks.