Although she left the university many years ago, the saying that once a teacher always a teacher rings true for her. She spoke of her passion to open the eyes of these women to the possibilities of a better life.
Born in 1945 in Uganda, Dr Hilda Tadria is married with two children and six grandchildren. After graduating with her first degree in Sociology, she knew that the career choices she made would involve a conscious interaction with people at very close levels.
By the time she made the choice to pursue Social Anthropology and Women Studies in Cambridge University in the United Kingdom for her doctoral studies, it had become clear to her that she wanted to work towards women’s empowerment.
For many years, she lectured at Makerere University in Uganda, during her time there, students came from all over Africa to study at this prestigious institution. It is here where the best of the best horned their skills. It is also here that Kenya’s President Kibaki had a stint in teaching before leaving the profession for politics.
While in Makerere, Tadria had an opportunity to interact with young people closely and to begin to understand some of the pressing issues that they had to deal with beyond the lecture halls. Issues that nonetheless had a lasting impact on their academic lives.
However, it was not until she left the university as an associate Professor to work for the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) that she came face to face with the problems women faced.
“It is while in UNECA that I began to really understand some of the root problems facing women across Africa. My work was to receive report from many African countries and to summarise the reports into one.
“I realised that most women movements had died. I also realised that they died because the membership was largely constituted of older women. Where were the young women? I wondered,” Tadria explains.
The passion for her to work with young women grew and upon her retirement from UNECA in 2007 where she had worked for ten years, she begun a programme that would show girls from all walks of life that there is a better world, and they can have it better.
“Mentoring and Empowerment Programme for Young Women is now four years old. Through this programme, I talk to girls about sexuality and sexual violence, about career planning and better performance in school,” she says.
As an entry point, Tadria realised early enough, perhaps the teacher in her, that better performance in school had an intricate relationship with issues of sex and sexuality.
Moving from school to school, specifically in secondary school where her target group is, she too had a lot to learn from these girls.
“A majority of these girls between the ages of 14 and 20 who are in secondary schools are in relationships, many living under very difficult and challenging circumstances,” she says.
In most instances, they have told her that there cannot be love without sex.
“Times have really changed, this is a 14-year old, who is already aware of the intricacies of a sexual relationship,” she says pensively.
Consequently, in their naivety, they will believe all sorts of stories. Some are told that if they are having sex for the first time, or in certain positions, that they cannot get pregnant. Then they get pregnant, and have to drop out of school.
“Very few of them, if at all, understand the link between sex, pregnancy and dropping out of school,” she says.
In addition to living under very trying circumstances, some know nothing better.
“Two years ago we visited a school in a rural area, when we asked the girls what they were aspiring for, in regard to their future, they all said that they wanted to get married to a good man and have a big house,” she says.
After her encounter with these girls and the ensuing discussions, they had a very different picture of the kind of future they would like to have.
Although there are very successful stories “such as the one where we visited a school. We explained to the head teacher what we are all about. The teacher said that for 25 years they had not had a single student achieve a first grade in senior year.
“After we had rolled out our mentorship programme, the school managed to score not one, but two first grades in 25 years. These are the stories that keep me going, that keep us going since I don’t do it alone.”
But then there are painful stories of when girls who are themselves babies are sexually abused and even impregnated. “There is the story of a 16-year-old, when I first saw her pregnant I was moved to tears. She was raped. Fortunately, we have been able to put her back in school, she and her baby are doing well,” she says.
Challenges facing the African girl child are many. Unlike the boy child, culture does not offer her as many opportunities as it does the boy child.
Neither does culture cushion her. It is for this reason that Tadria continues to work with girls in rural areas, urban slums among other areas. Although these girls may have unique challenges due to their circumstances, when it comes to sexuality and their empowerment, the issues are cross cutting.
Tadria recalls a report she once read of a study that had been conducted in Makerere University where female students were asked what they wanted the most from the university.
“Very few chose passing well as their first priority. Only about 24 per cent of them. Then we had violence in the university, of boyfriends beating their girlfriends, dictating when they should go to class.
“During our times that was unheard of. He hit you, you dropped him. You didn’t miss classes because you were cooking and washing for him while he attended classes, he treated you right and took you out,” she recalls.
It is for these reasons that Tadria does what she does, with no salary or allowance, she raises funds to help the organisation move from one school to another.
Every day she continues to connect the dots towards creating a strong movement for young girls. These are girls who know what is best for them, who are assertive. These are girls who are not too intimidated to dream and more importantly are able to pursue their dreams.
This article was originally published in Kenyan Woman Issue 32