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Tackling child marriage through theatre: Irene’s story

©Georgie Scott/VSO

Volunteer Irene Bitumbe is on a mission to protect the rights of girls in Tanzania. Aged just 25, she has worked tirelessly tackling sexual reproductive health and rights for young people through interactive theatre. Irene explains why she wants to help enable young girls have the future they deserve. 

In Lindi, a small seaside town in southern Tanzania, nearly half of all girls are married before their 18th birthday – one of the highest rates of child marriage in the country. During the second half of 2018, 450 girls in Lindi fell pregnant, dropping out of school and facing a life of limited opportunities.  

 Irene doesn’t want this to be the inevitable path for many young girls in Lindi. Since 2017, she has been working with VSO to change norms surrounding child marriage and keep young girls in school. 

A portrait of a Tanzanian woman Georgie Scott/VSO

Irene began her journey with International Citizen Service.

Not letting girls be girls 

Growing up as a girl anywhere in the world can be difficult. In Lindi, Tanzania, things are especially hard when long-standing cultural expectations are for you to drop out of your education and marry before your 18th birthday.

Irene reached her own dream of completing education, but she was painfully aware that many of her peers were not as lucky. Rather than accept these limitations on girls, Irene began her volunteer journey with the International Citizen Service (ICS) youth volunteering programme, hoping to contribute to a better society. 

Using interactive theatre as a tool for change 

With ICS, Irene discovered the power of Interactive Youth Theatre. Using drama, volunteers worked with the community to create and perform stories which illustrate how discrimination can push girls into sexual relationships. 

Theatre enables the society to see the damage not by lecturing but through observing.

Irene Bitumbe

“Theatre enables the society to see the damage not by lecturing but through observing,” Irene says. “It makes the community become sensitive to girls’ situation, so they voluntarily commit to change as part of the solution.” 

Rather than stop after her ICS placement, Irene continued her amazing work and grew the Interactive Youth Theatre project from 20 volunteers to 128.  

“Seeing young girls with dreams and ambitions but failing to achieve them due to teenage pregnancy and early marriage was eating me up!” said Irene, on why she continued her work after ICS.  

In a single year Irene and her team put on over 100 performances and reached more than 15,000 people, including students, parents, teachers, doctors and local government leaders. There have been some impressive results so far and she has even led to new laws being formed in seven villages to protect the rights of girls. 

A big group of people stood outside in Tanzania working together VSO

VSO Tanzania working together using interactive theatre.

One village has formed a committee to combat early pregnancy and a secondary school has formed a club to discuss how girls and young women can push back against men who pressure them into sexual relationships. 

Looking to the future 

At just 25 years old, Irene’s work is truly inspirational and making a significant difference in Tanzania. In the communities she has worked in, over 50% of people have changed their attitudes to child marriage – creating hope for the future for generation of young girls.  

Woman in a glittery stage accepting an award and giving a speech Georgie Scott/VSO

Irene was the winner of VSO's Health Volunteer Award, 2019

Asked what she wishes for Tanzania's marginalised girls, Irene, said: 

"I pursued my dreams. I went to school, I graduated, and I achieved what I wanted to achieve. Now I have joy and I'm happy. I just want my other girls to feel the same. I want them to be able to pursue their dreams in life, by challenging local attitudes, behaviors and traditions."