It is widely acknowledged that the empowerment of women and girls is a necessary component of poverty reduction and societal progress throughout the world. Gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls is Goal 5 of the Sustainable Development Goals, a collection of 17 goals created by the UN in partnership with civil society organizations, businesses and governments to create a better, more inclusive world by 2030. The benefits of empowering half of the population are limitless.
According to USAID, women and girls in Tanzania are among the most marginalized citizens in sub-Saharan Africa and in order to change this, “Tanzanian women and girls must have greater access to and control over resources, opportunities, and decision-making power in order to sustainably reduce extreme poverty, build healthy communities, and promote inclusive growth.” 
Girls with disabilities face multiple layers of discrimination due to their multiple identities as women and as individuals with disabilities. This is the definition of intersectionality, or the overlapping of multiple forms of discrimination. For example, according to a World Health Survey of 51 countries conducted between 2002 and 2004, the employment rate for men with a disability was 52.8%, compared with that of women with a disability at 19.6%. The rate of employment for men without a disability was 64.9% and for women without a disability it was 29.9%.  All people with disabilities had lower employment rates than people without disabilities, but the employment rate for women with a disability was less than half the rate for men with a disability.
While living in Tanzania, I’ve thought a great deal about the empowerment of women and girls with disabilities. For me, women’s empowerment can be an overwhelming issue because the oppression of women is deeply entrenched in societies throughout the world, to differing extents. It can be difficult to know where to begin in order to change such an ingrained societal norm, but BCC is utilizing three methods that I believe can be extremely effective: education, increased access to resources, and policy.
One example of how BCC is using education as a tool for empowerment and increasing access to resources is through our partnership with Femme International. For the past two years, BCC has had the privilege of working with this incredible organization that focuses on empowerment through menstrual health education and distribution of reusable menstrual health management products. A few weeks ago, Femme International and BCC worked together to conduct BCC’s first needs assessment to learn the opinions, practices, and needs of girls with disabilities regarding menstruation. We conducted the needs assessment by surveying girls and their caregivers on a variety of topics related to menstrual health management. The value of data in addressing female empowerment cannot be understated; without the ability to pinpoint a gap where a need is unmet, it is impossible to know if we are providing a solution to meet the correct need. For example, we learned from the needs assessment that 90.6% of the young women surveyed did not know what menstruation was before their first period. This information highlights the need for more open communication about this taboo topic, and allows us to brainstorm ways that BCC may be able to facilitate these discussions, such as planning trainings with caregivers before their daughters have their first period in order to facilitate conversations about how to address it.
Another piece of information we learned from the needs assessment is that 43% of girls surveyed sometimes or always miss out on their regular activities during their periods, and the primary reason given is pain. With this knowledge, Femme International adjusted the curriculum for the BCC workshops to place greater emphasis on educating staff and caregivers about methods of pain relief and management. As BCC, this information is crucial so that we can increase our awareness of pain symptoms and ensure that we are providing the necessary support for the young women we serve.
This week, Femme International facilitated two workshops for BCC staff, young women, and caregivers to learn about their bodies and to engage in conversations about taboo subjects that many participants have not previously had the opportunity to discuss. Femme International and BCC worked diligently together to create a set of resources aimed specifically at assisting girls with disabilities to manage their periods independently, and to ensure that the information is accessible for everyone and that everyone can join the conversation.
After the workshops, I spoke with Sister Woinde, BCC’s occupational therapist, and she underscored the novelty of the information presented. “These parents [who attended the workshop today] will help us to motivate other parents [to come to the workshops],” she said. “Here in Africa, learning concerning menstruation and female organs doesn’t happen, unless you go to medical school. For people like this, it’s amazing. They are now saying, ‘These are normal things.’”
Flora, a BCC Outreach Worker who provides services to children in their homes, said that she was very pleased with the workshop because now BCC center staff and outreach workers can review menstruation and menstrual health management with parents and girls regularly. She believes that when the information is repeated, we will see more positive results.
The third way that BCC is empowering women and girls is through rights-based policy. BCC is proud to have finalized its Child Protection Policy, a document that protects the rights of the children and young adults we serve. This policy protects everyone, but is especially vital to protect the needs of our women and girls as they are more vulnerable to violence and sexual assault. We hope that this policy will protect the children of BCC from all forms of abuse and provide guidelines for staff to respond appropriately if there is concern.
BCC is committed to empowering the women and girls we serve, and ensuring that they can fully exercise all of their human rights. We will continue to take action to address the stigma and double discrimination faced by women and girls with disabilities, and to work step by step towards a world where gender equality is a reality for all.
By Alex Bailey