Combating teenage pregnancy through education and skills training
In the time of COVID-19, we all know the importance of soap and hand-washing to prevent the spread of the virus. But for Benithe Isingizwe, a #DOTYouth Street Team member and social innovator from Rwanda, soap is also a means to support women’s empowerment and education.
Benithe is the founder and CEO of Their Voice Foundation, a social enterprise that provides teens with information about sexual and reproductive health and training in life and entrepreneurial skills. The foundation’s activities are partially supported through the sale of liquid soaps made by women and girls living in poverty, with the majority of funds going towards paying those soapmakers a fair wage
Combating high rates of teen pregnancy in rural Rwanda was Benithe’s initial motivation for creating Their Voice Foundation. Benithe herself became a mother at the age of 21, and says she felt confused and worthless, worried that she would be a burden to her family. With the support of her mother and family, Benithe returned to college and completed her diploma in information technology. Upon graduating, she realized she was in a unique position to support other teens.
“There were girls who got pregnant but did not have the chance to continue studying,” says Benithe, explaining that many young mothers face shame rather than support. “So I said ‘why can I not do something to help them and impact their lives, because I have been there, too.’”
Their Voice Foundation offers the education and awareness Benithe wishes she had in secondary school. The foundation’s three-month-long “Youth Table” program goes school to school, counselling young women and men about teenage pregnancy and sexual and reproductive health, while also building decision-making, negotiation, and other life skills.
Conversations about sexual and reproductive health remain taboo in Rwanda. “Here in my culture, it is not something parents can sit and share with you—that you are going to have your period, you are going to meet boys, and how you can make decisions [about contraception and safe sex],” Benithe describes.
Though these topics are supposed to be taught in school, Benithe says teachers often feel uncomfortable to teach the subject matter. Their Voice Foundation bridges that education gap by sharing vital information from one young person to another.
“It is easy for us [to have these conversations] because teens see themselves in us,” explains Benithe. This trust is what enables Benithe and her team to debunk and demystify topics like pregnancy, contraception, and sexual rights.
The role of entrepreneurship and empowerment
COVID-19 has limited Benithe’s ability to travel to schools for training, and she does not want to shift to an online-only program, as it would exclude youth who do not have phones or internet access.
While there remains plenty of in-person demand for the training offered by Their Voice Foundation, Benithe is taking this pandemic period to secure more soap customers and generate other funding. Learning about the #DOTYouth Street Team through DOT Rwanda’s Facebook page, the program has provided Benithe with the financial support to improve her soap and produce more products.
Collaboration with Sharon Katushabe, a #DOTYouth Street Team member in Uganda, has also introduced the possibility of Their Voice Foundation producing other products to support its community outreach and education work.
Sharon is the founder of Vase Of Transformation, a non-profit initiative that empowers young people to lead transformational change and “unlocks the potential of young mothers through hands-on and practical jewellery-making skills as a means to earn a livelihood. Benithe plans to learn how to make handmade earrings, necklaces, and bracelets from Sharon so she can support other young women to do the same.
Entrepreneurship, Benithe says, is an important pathway out of poverty for youth and can prevent early or unwanted pregnancies as women have greater agency to make decisions and the finances to support themselves.
““Through bonding with their mentors, guardians, and community leaders, girls and boys learn how to see themselves as capable future entrepreneurs and valued leaders who will stand as the fighters of child marriage and teenage pregnancies,” Benithe concludes of Their Voice Foundation’s work.”