"You gave us back our lives" By Phil Latessa, ETI Executive Director, Photos: Jennie Peakin and ETI staff members

Four years ago, a team of U.S. volunteers from Empower Tanzania met with eight women from the town of Maore in Same District in northeastern Tanzania. The women were all victims of gender-based violence (GBV). We had asked their pastor to bring them to a meeting so we could learn more about this issue in Tanzania. The women knew each other but did not know each had been a victim of violence. Traditional culture and shame had kept this a secret.

Empower Tanzania (ETI) is a non-governmental organization committed to improving the lives of the people of Tanzania through health, education, and development programs, and, in particular, focuses on empowering women through its programs. A major obstacle to empowerment of women is their traditional role in Tanzania and their vulnerability to domestic violence. This meeting was the initial effort to understand the problem before developing programs that would help.

The women knew each other but did not know each had been a victim of violence.

The eight women were reluctant to discuss how they had been abused until one of the ETI volunteers said that this sort of violence was also a big problem in the U.S. This shocked the women and they began to describe how they had been beaten. One woman shared how as a widow, her husband’s family took her land and tried to take her children. Two women shared that their husbands had tried to murder them and the police refused to act.

The ETI volunteers were stunned as the women continued to talk and became more and more comfortable. “We feel better just talking about this,” one of them said. “We should do this more often.” The pastor said they could meet as a group at the church and call it “Bible Study.” One of the ETI volunteers said, “You have just created what we call a support group.”

Nardi Macha

Six months later, ETI hired Nardi Macha as program manager, sent her for training in counseling, and established 10 support groups each serving 10 women across the district. The women quickly described themselves as “survivors” rather than victims, a sign of their solidarity and refusal to continue in this subservient role. Nardi met with each group at least twice per month and provided group and individual counseling. In some especially terrible situations, she and the survivor went to the police and demanded action.

The women quickly described themselves as “survivors” rather than victims.

In a male-dominated culture, this took tremendous courage, Nardi was determined and the police developed a grudging respect for her. Sometimes the police arrested the husband, especially if drunkenness was involved. At times, Lutheran pastor Nahana Mjema, a woman with graduate degrees in counseling, joined Nardi and the survivor in seeking action from the police. Nardi’s and Nahana’s reputation as strong advocates gave hope to the 100 women in the support groups and notified the communities that they were not afraid to confront abusive men and demand action by the police.

Counselor Pastor Nahanna speaking to the 100 gender-based violence survivors.

We had funding for three years for this program but after two years, a financial shortfall required that we terminate Nardi’s employment. Pastor Nahana and Efrancia Nzota (program manager for another ETI project) continue to make monthly visits to the support groups.

The original plan had been to shift the focus from counseling to income generating projects after the third year. Based on observations by Pastor Nahana and the results of a test of attitudes, self-confidence, and independence, we decided to implement the next phase of the program ahead of schedule.

Pastor Nahana

ETI develops its projects by listening to the people being served and finding out what they want and need. In this instance, we met with survivors, members of the community, and local stakeholders to determine what sort of business activity was technically and financially feasible. The support groups began planning for the production of batik and tie dyed fabrics and liquid soap.

At this time, Jeffrey Carithers, MD, (program manager for all ETI health programs) learned of an organization (Days for Girls) that had developed a reusable menstrual pad and was providing it in over 100 developing countries. Dr. Carithers had been seeking a solution to chronic urinary tract infections in women. He learned (after overcoming cultural reluctance to discuss anything related to sex) that women were using rags or leaves during their menstrual periods. Disposable menstrual pads were available, but were too expensive for most women. He also learned that very few girls knew about menstruation and their first period shocked and frightened them -- many were embarrassed by the event and ultimately dropped out of school.

Dr. Carithers saw that the reusable menstrual pad could be a solution to a host of problems. The kit includes eight pieces of felt and waterproof fabrics designed to capture menstrual flow. After the end of the period, the fabrics are washed and sun dried, killing any bacteria, and are stored in a fabric bag. This kit is designed to last for three years and can be manufactured with minimal training. ETI sent program manager Efrancia and three women to Uganda for a training program conducted by Days for Girls.


On their return, Efrancia and the other women became trainers for the 10 support groups, each of which was also making batik and liquid soap. Equipment and supplies were provided and each of the 10 support groups began to make the reusable menstrual pad kits. U.S. volunteers met with the leaders of the support groups to teach basic business skills. The women learned about specialization of labor, quality control, minimizing cost, marketing, inventory control, and revenue sharing. All of these were new ideas to the women, none of whom had ever engaged in any business activity beyond bartering at the local market.

On a subsequent visit, the U.S. delegation included a retired partner from a major accounting firm. He developed a set of instructions for the efficient production of reusable menstrual pads. He also did a cost analysis of all items and recommended an initial price of 10,000 shillings (about $5). Over time, this price would increase to 12,000 shillings. He also established prices for batik fabrics at 10,000 shillings for a 2-meter piece of fabric and 5,000 shillings for a liter of liquid soap.

ETI’s 34 Community Health Educators (CHEs) who are part the Improving Women’s Health Program and who cover the entire Same District, will serve as the sales force for these products. They will take orders from the public and present them to the ETI office staff who will prepare them to be delivered by the CHE on her next visit to the area where it was purchased. Revenue from sales will be shared between the CHE making the sale and the Beyond Gender-Based Violence (BGBV) support groups that produced the product sold.

CHE Leonia demonstrating reusable menstrual pad features.

Despite two years of counseling, the ETI staff expected that these women who had been through hell would continue to be reserved or even depressed. In reality, they are enthusiastic and energized. Far from being downbeat, the atmosphere at recent training sessions seemed like a sales meeting with a motivational speaker. I interviewed three of these women and asked them about their experiences. One was divorced, one widowed, and one had a marriage that was breaking up. Each of them had been abused by their husbands, but all were positive and grateful to the programs developed and implemented by ETI. “You gave me back my life,” each of them said. “Now I have skills and confidence and I can begin a new life."

Far from being downbeat, the atmosphere at recent training sessions seemed like a sales meeting with a motivational speaker.

The last half-day of the most recent training in Same Town was devoted to details of ordering new supplies, increasing output, and deciding how revenue would be shared with the CHEs (who would be the sales force) and among the members of each of the support groups.

As he was preparing to close the meeting, Jeff Carithers made an announcement. ”I know that all of you have worked hard on these income generating programs and there is no reason why you should wait for the sales force to begin working. ETI will pay each group for its production right now.” The room erupted with shouts and laughter.

“You gave us our lives. You gave us our lives,” they began chanting.

Although Efra had prepared the list alphabetically, Jeff decided to pay the support groups according to the size of their payouts. “Kisima earned 33,000 shillings ($17)!” he exclaimed and the head of that group dashed to the front of the room to claim her payment. As he continued, ”One hundred fourteen thousand shillings for Kisiwani … 176,000 for Makanya.” The excitement was visibly growing with each announcement. Finally, he announced. “Hedaru earned 251,000 shillings.” The women jumped out of their seats and rushed to Jeff singing, dancing and laughing. They picked Efra up and danced her around the room.

“You gave us our lives. You gave us our lives,” they began chanting.

Jeff quieted them. “We are very proud of what you have accomplished. You grew from depressed people to independent women, strong and empowered. But remember this. Empower Tanzania gave you the help and resources – but each of you did the hard work of regaining your confidence. You gave yourselves your lives back.”

The room erupted. We sobbed for joy.

Created By
Spencer Rabe


Jennie Peakin and various ETI staff members

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