Tanzania: working for change in church and society

31 May 2024

In this Voices from the Communion, Faustina Nillan, newly appointed as director for women and gender with the All Africa Conference of Churches, shares hopes and challenges of her work with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania.

Faustina Nillan, speaking during the UN’s 68th Commission on the Status of Women in New York. Photo: LWF/P. Hitchen

Faustina Nillan, speaking during the UN’s 68th Commission on the Status of Women in New York. Photo: LWF/P. Hitchen

Voices from the Communion: Faustina Nillan, national director for women and children in Tanzanian church

(LWI) - In the decade since she began working as national director for women and children in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania, Faustina Nillan has been at the forefront of efforts to strengthen families and support girls and women in some of the most marginalized communities in her country.

Her work encompasses a wide variety of activities, ranging from the grassroots to the national and global arenas. One week, she will be developing a new curriculum for Sunday School activities, the next she may be advising faith leaders on gender justice workshops or travelling to the United Nations in New York to campaign for an end to stigma and misconceptions around menstruation.

Earlier this month, Nillan was appointed to a new job as director for gender and women at the ecumenical All Africa Conference of Churches, a position she will take up in September. In this Voices from the Communion, she looks back over the past decade at some of the progress, as well as the challenges she has faced in her life and work.

Tell us something about your childhood and your family background?

I grew up in a small village near Arusha in north-eastern Tanzania. My father died when I was young and my mother also died when I was 14, so I was raised by my aunt. In Africa, children are taken care of by the extended family and I am now helping to raise my aunt's daughter, as well as an adopted son, alongside my own two children.

My passion for my work comes from my mother, Lillian, who was a nurse and a midwife. She was very supportive of women in need and often, when girls from very poor families gave birth, she would take care of them in our home for a while to make sure they had everything they needed. From her, I learnt that the value of what we have increases when we share it with others.

When did you start working for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania?

I began working with the ecumenical aid and development agency World Vision, but I joined the ELCT in 2013. I was still under 30 years old when I began my career with the church and most of my new colleagues were much older, but my predecessor in the job paved the way for me. She was my role model and I am so grateful to her because everyone was very cooperative.

What is the main focus of your work?

I work to bring about transformation in all areas of women’s empowerment, which can include social, economic, political and legal changes. Every diocese in Tanzania now has a women and children’s desk. I work with all of them on issues affecting women and girls, trying to challenge harmful practices and social norms such as gender-based violence and female genital mutilation.

We do a lot of work to support the economic empowerment of women, but we also run leadership programs and family nurturing projects. Early childhood development is another important area, so I am involved with developing Sunday school curriculums and working with young adults in the church.

What about the political and legal aspects that you mentioned?

In our country we are still struggling with the consequences of a 1971 marriage act which allowed girls as young as 14 to be married with their parents’ consent. We have seen some important developments recently and in 2019, the high court upheld a ruling to raise the minimum age to 18 for both girls and boys.

As civil society organizations, we work together to support a permanent change in the law. In practice, though, one in three girls are still married before their 18th birthday so there is much work to do. We now have our first female president in Tanzania, Dr Samia Saluhu Hassan, who is more sensitive to gender justice issues. She has been encouraging women to be agents of change and she has reversed a policy which barred pregnant girls from attending school, so we are seeing some progress.

What are the most difficult challenges you face?

There is an anti-gender justice movement, made up not just of men but also women from all backgrounds who oppose this kind of work. This is really challenging, but we try to provide relevant information, to help them see that gender justice does not mean being in competition with men, but it means working together so that no one is left behind, because we are all equal before God.

We try hard to engage men, particularly our faith leaders, in this work because they are very influential. When we bring our bishops and others on board, we see that they can become the best advocates for equality and protection of women’s rights. In some dioceses, they have started men’s departments to complement the work of our women’s desks and they become powerful allies in this work.

For example, our former ELCT presiding bishop Dr Fredrick Shoo became a strong supporter of our campaign to tackle myths and misconceptions about menstruation, making sure that both boys and girls receive comprehensive sexual health education. As part of this campaign, we also advocated for a reduction of taxes on menstrual health products which makes them inaccessible for many poorer women and girls.

What does it mean for you and your work to be a part of the global communion of churches?

It is essential because my work is about connecting women in our country with partners and others all over the globe who are also working for empowerment and gender justice. For example, as part of the LWF delegation at the Commission on the Status of Women in March, I met many influential leaders from other churches and faith communities and together we can be a stronger, more effective voice for change.

LWF/P. Hitchen