|Loveness Sanga (photo by Michael Schall)|
Sanga is part of a group called Restless Development, whose mission is to empower the youth to solve some of the world's most pressing crises: everything from climate change to sexism. Since young people are ultimately the ones who will have to deal with the issues of the future, Restless Development believes they should be at the front of finding solutions.
Today, Restless Development has more than 300 full-time staff in 10 different countries, and Sanga — one of its brightest stars — is leading the charge in Tanzania.
"I've been there, I've grown up in that kind of society that does not support women," Sanga told A Plus. "We also deserve to be treated equally and with respect, and it was something I wished: that if I ever had a way to make a change I would go for it. And then having an opportunity to work with Restless Development fit that goal."
Disowned by her family at 17, Sanga grew up in Dar es Salaam, a coastal city on the east side of Tanzania. She has spent the majority of her adult life trying to change the society that she had to live in as a young woman. The program she runs for Restless Development, Girls Let's Be Leaders, is what they call a peer-to-peer empowerment program, where volunteers educate people who are from the same neighborhoods and of similar backgrounds as them. Girls Let's Be Leaders tackles everything from how women are treated to the challenges of facing HIV.
Sanga began working for Restless Development as an intern in 2008. She was trained for two months before spending six more in a village near her hometown, and throughout a stint of volunteering, she was tasked with teaching life skills, sexual education, and women's rights to a community that had little exposure to that kind of information.
During her first job, she oversaw programs throughout the country and handled human resources while managing her own team. At the time, Sanga explained, Restless Development saw something in her that she otherwise never would have recognized. Restless Development says it hires on potential, but even it probably couldn't predict how far Sanga would go.
"Restless Development trusted in me," Sanga said. "They gave me a job and pulled out this professionalism in me that I didn't even realize was there."
Today, Sanga heads a team in Tanzania with five staff members, two interns, and 36 volunteers. Along with HIV education and pushing back against misogyny, the program also provides seed funds for young entrepreneurs and runs health clinics for women, where they can get birth control and STD tests in privacy.
When I met Sanga, she proudly told me the story of a girl whose life was turned around by the Girls Let's Be Leaders program.
The girl's mother died of AIDS when she was young. In the aftermath, she became entirely discouraged by life when people in the community told her that her mother died of AIDS and accused her of being infected with the same disease. After moving in with her grandmother, it became apparent that her future was going to be a struggle. Her grandma couldn't provide much and the girl was tempted to get the things she needed — such as money — by getting into relationships with older men.
"Most women are dependent and don't have power because they are not contributing anything to society because of poverty and having no access to programs that could improve themselves," Sanga explained.
At the age of 12, she got pregnant. Not long after that, she dropped out of school. Staying at home to take care of the child, she dedicated herself entirely to raising her baby on the little means her and her grandmother had.
By the time Sanga discovered the girl through local leaders, she joined the program with little optimism about what was to come. But with an internship and some vocational training, her attitude started to turn around.
The girl became a community volunteer in Sanga's program, then a peer educator, teaching other girls who had similar backgrounds about opportunities for a future that they might not be able to see. Soon enough she was overseeing community volunteers across Tanzania, which led to her being recruited to work for the local government as an administrative secretary of child protection.
"Now she's having dreams, and hope and feeling like she could do better and do better for her daughter," Sanga said. "Through the election process last year she was used to recruit young people and used that chance to recruit many of the girls we have in projects to be involved in recruitment process, growing the program."
That story is the manifestation of Sanga and Restless Development's goals: to give young women the opportunity to better themselves and in turn give them a chance to change the communities they live in.
In Dar es Salaam and all across Tanzania, the deep-rooted gender violence can be extremely difficult to tackle.
"It's hard because most of the gender-based violence is also dealing with family issues," Sanga said. "A father raping a daughter, an uncle raping a niece, and so on."
In the culture they encounter, if a girl is 10 years old, she can get married as long as the parents agree to the match. Sometimes, a 10-year-old ends up with a 40-year-old man, and as long as parents see value in the union, the girls are left with little choice.
These serious issues make it difficult for people like Sanga to leave their mark in places where members of the community don't initially accept their presence, they work closely with local village authorities to allow them to educate the youth throughout a town.
"When we sell our product to them and help them understand it becomes easy to work with their community," Sanga said. "Working with issues like birth control and condoms and things that don't align with African culture is hard, but if they see why we're doing that and the importance of it, they get it … life has changed and they need to cope with it."
The Mabinti Tushike Hatamu (MTH) project is a ground-breaking initiative that has been designed to test and evaluate strategies for empowering adolescent, out-of-school girls aged 10-19 years old. Photo courtesy of Restless Development
As Sanga and Restless Development spread out across Tanzania, they are also laying down more long-term plans to help shape the future of the country.
Sanga is excited about initiatives to get young women involved in the government. In Tanzania, which has a female vice president, the Tanzanian government is actually reworking its constitution, and young people are forcing the government to adopt some pro-youth and pro-female policies. So far, it's working: there is actually language talking about gender equality in a draft of the new constitution.
"The government is really supportive of getting itself more involved in youth sector issues,
Sanga said. "Things are going slowly, but it's changing people, they're more informed and know their rights."
Not only is Restless Development enabling change through the government, it is also working closely with parents who have children in the programs to see real, tangible progress. It has quarterly seminars with parents and explains to them the programs it is running since the girls they work with frequently interact and look up to older women in the community. Sanga has also facilitated mentorships so that young girls can talk to older women they trust.
Some of those same girls are also creating businesses that may lead to long-term financial stability. The girls are making things like liquid soap, shampoo, opening their own shops, creating clothes, and even hosting community events to show off some of their own talents. Restless Development helps some lucky young members of the community secure finances to launch some of their companies.
All of these strides come down to a simple philosophy: people are agents of change, and young women — even in the worst circumstances — are capable of amazing things.
"We don't want to call them vulnerable because we know they can create change," Sanga said. "We're not taking them as vulnerable young people, were taking them as partners."