After completing school, 18-year-old Calista started selling mud bricks in her village in Mbeya. She couldn’t go for higher studies. Her family could not afford it. Calista knew, however, that making and selling bricks was never her calling.

Rather, she aspired to be an electrician. Many teased her, saying this was a man’s job. But she was fortunate to have a mother who encouraged her curiosity. “I had no formal skills that I could use to find employment as an electrician. So, it became a hobby,” says Calista.

This was until her mother registered her for a vocational skills programme. Calista spent nine months being trained on electrical installation, wiring and maintenance. She graduated from the programme and soon earned a reputation as a skilled electrician in her village.

Since then she has been slowly saving money with her dream to one day buy land and build a house. It can happen – I am sure it will happen.

As we mark the International Day of the Girl Child, I share my reflections. I too was once a girl child. I had opportunities.

I had options. I grew up in a safe environment. I had all the encouragement and support from both my mother and father, my teachers and the community around me. What a privilege. I wonder what course in life I would have had if that had not been the case.

How would I have coped if at every step there was an obstacle and I lived in fear? How would I have coped with the realisation that I had many more obstacles than my male peers just because I was a girl?

In Tanzania today, a quarter of the population are girls under the age of 18. They have hopes and dreams.

They have the potential to be the next generation of talent, innovators in a fast-changing world and motivated citizens. All they need are opportunities, be heard and supported to make the right choices for themselves. We need to come together to ensure that the story of girls in Tanzania is one of hope, and not missed opportunities.

Though Calista was not able to pursue higher studies, there are girls who don’t even get a chance to be in school, continue and complete their education due to multiple other pressures. Only around 40 per cent of girls who go to secondary school complete their education.

The others drop out for many reasons, including inadequate family support, the need to contribute to family earnings, perceived lack of relevance, teenage pregnancy and practices such as child marriage. About 30 per cent of the girls in the country get married before 18, and 27 per cent become mothers too early (girls between 15-19 years ). Violence and sexual assault against girls is as high as 11 per cent in the 15 to 19 age group.

Eighty per cent of the new HIV infections in adolescents and young people are in girls. Transitioning safely to adulthood is a precarious journey for many Tanzanian girls. This reality needs to change.

In 2018, the theme of the International Day of the Girl Child is “With Her: A Skilled Girlforce.” It will mark the beginning of a year-long, worldwide effort to bring together partners and stakeholders to advocate for addressing the most pressing needs and opportunities for girls.

With the government’s emphasis on skills-building to achieve its Vision 2025, there is an opportunity to change the life course for millions of young girls in Tanzania. This change will require heart.

It will require that each one of us sees value and potential in every young girl, that we nurture and not demean or assault, that we encourage more and punish less, that we listen more and dictate less, that we open up spaces for their engagement and restrict less.

Calista is making her mark and charting her journey of contribution in this country. Imagine if families, communities, schools, workplaces, leaders across Tanzania would support many more girls like Calista to shine in whichever field they have talent. It is within reach – if we believe that ‘yes – SHE can”.