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‘Young people in our country need care and support to thrive’

Rwanda
Women
Education
Photo: Craven Mupenda/Girl Effect
Photo: Craven Mupenda/Girl Effect

Flavia Mutamutega is Baza Shangazi, literally ‘ask auntie’ in Kinyarwanda, the national language. She works as part of Ni Nyampinga, a hugely popular multi-media youth platform launched by international non-profit Girl Effect in 2011, made up of a magazine, radio show, a network of ambassadors and clubs, and digital platforms.

Prior to working as an agony aunt, Flavia worked as a secondary-school teacher, a translator and a Child Participation Officer for UNICEF and for the Ministry of Health.

Isn’t being the only Baza Shangazi a big job for just one person?

It is a big role, mainly in terms of what it means to young girls. It helps them connect to someone they can talk to and trust.

As Rwanda is trying to develop, people no longer live as large families with a grandmother, aunties and siblings – all in the same compound. Many parents are trying to make ends meet and have no time to sit with their children and talk to them. Also, because of our history [the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi], there are many orphans, many children who grew up by themselves.1

But in any case, the culture in Rwanda, especially in rural areas [where the majority of the population lives], is that we don’t talk about puberty, body changes and sexuality. Parents don’t talk openly about these issues. So this is the role of Baza Shangazi: to be a trusted person who gives them information to help keep safe and encourage them to make informed decisions and be self-confident.

You are Baza Shangazi on the radio, in magazines and online, but don’t use your real name or photo. Why is that?

Girls don’t know me as a person, but as a voice. If a girl felt she could trust me because of my face, that wouldn’t have any meaning. If we were to put a photo in a magazine, girls may not identify with the image or it may distract them from really listening to the advice. The girl knows auntie only through her voice, so she can visualize her in her own mind. Everyone has an image of who auntie is – and it is an auntie they can relate to.

What drew you to this work – is there something in your life that prepared you for this?

When I grew up, I had a male cousin I was close to. We did everything together: looking after cattle, getting water from the well, gathering wood – everything except washing dishes, he was never asked to do that! Later, when I was a bit older, perhaps 10, I realized that my mother kept me closer to her. When my cousin was fetching wood, I couldn’t go. My mother was worried and said: ‘Don’t let anyone disturb you’, but she didn’t explain what she meant and it made me feel uneasy.

Then at boarding school, an older girl took me under her wing. We shared a bag in the dorm where we put our clothes and things. I noticed that when some items disappeared from our bag, she wouldn’t let me shower with her. Then I discovered why and she told me about menstruation. I’ve been lucky to have an older sister who let me discover this, so when my periods came, I was not surprised, but other girls had not been told.

Their skirts got stained and you could read the shame on their faces, so I decided that I would tell girls what to expect. I studied communication, so I could do that better. When I started working as a teacher and later at UNICEF, I never missed a chance to talk to young people about reproductive health and changes in the body.

Our responses seek to make every young person feel proud of who they are, regardless of their sexuality, feelings and choices

What is it to be an adolescent girl in Rwanda today? What type of questions do they ask you?

There are lots of things girls are curious about and want to know.

Younger girls mostly ask about how to deal with bodily changes and friendships. For example: ‘I am 12 and my periods haven’t started yet, am I OK? Why do my friends have breasts and not me?’ Or ‘Why is the person I want to be friends with not considering me? How can I be integrated in this circle of friends?’ They ask these small things, but they mean a lot to them.

Older girls ask about sexuality, pregnancy, gender-based violence, HIV, education and gender barriers. For example: ‘My father is selling the land. He consulted my brother but not me; Look, auntie, there is this boy who asked me to meet him and he locked the door and raped me; I love him but when we are together he doesn’t show any sign that he loves me but only wants to have sex; I’ve met this older man and he gives me money to have sex; My periods haven’t come for three months. What do I do?; Can I be infected [with HIV] if there was no blood transferred during sex?’

Do you receive many messages? How do you process and handle the questions, particularly the difficult ones?

We [the team at Ni Nyampinga] get hundreds of messages a day from girls aged 10 to 19 from all over the country, even the most remote parts. We get messages from boys too, who ask about relationships and sexuality and want to know why we don’t have a radio show or a section in our magazines for them too.

We go through all the messages and sort out the ones we need to respond to immediately.

We group the questions dealing with general knowledge by themes and respond to them as clusters in the magazine or on the radio show. We reply to their questions, but we also take the opportunity to give them more information around the issue they are asking about.

If the message is urgent, like a gender-based violence issue for example, the girl will receive a reply on her phone within 24 hours. We’ll tell her not to keep the incident secret, but report it to a trusted adult, seek medical attention if needed, and we direct her to toll-free numbers for support and services. We also address some of these issues in our magazine articles, radio shows and dramas, so more girls can learn about them.

Our responses seek to make every young person feel proud of who they are, regardless of their sexuality, feelings and choices.

What do you like the most about your job?

To feel the relief of a girl or boy who has got an answer to their problem. Even if it’s not face to face, you can feel it. I get feedback from girls saying: ‘I don’t know what I would have done without you.’ Or messages from parents saying things like: ‘Before, my daughter didn’t dare to ask for [sanitary] pads. Now she asks for money and, because of your talk show, I don’t ask what she needs it for.’

My job makes me feel closer to young people. Being a parent in Rwanda doesn’t apply only to your children. In every young person, I see my child. I think many people feel that way, even if they don’t say it, because there are so many young people in our country who need care, guidance and support to thrive.

1 According to the UN, ‘More than one million people overwhelmingly Tutsi, but also moderate Hutu, Twa and others who opposed the genocide were systematically killed in less than three months.’

New Internationalist issue 527 magazine cover This article is from the September-October 2020 issue of New Internationalist.
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