We all know that parents play a critical role in the first 1000 days of a baby’s life. Most complications in the first two years are preventable with simple health interventions for mom and baby. However, let’s not forget about the significant role that grandparents can play in a child’s development. Grandparents can be a major provider of love, support and wisdom to their children and grandchildren.

Research shows that grandparents often support their children and grandchildren through emotional, financial and household responsibilities. In fact, nearly 28% of parents in Canada today rely on relatives such as grandparents to provide ongoing child care. Additionally, many families rely on grandparents as a trusted source of information. Whether it be as historians who protect family traditions or as experts who share parenting advice, grandparents have earned a role as keepers of knowledge.

On my recent trip to rural Shinyanga Region, Tanzania, I witnessed another role that grandparents are occupying: the role of gender equality advocates.

Meet Rehema

In Mwenda Kulima village, I participated in a 1000 Day Journey women’s support group. The group provides supportive and safe spaces for women in the community to discuss parenting and health among their peers.

Women’s support group in Singida Region, Tanzania

“We decided to form this group so that we could better educate the community about parenting issues. This group helps women to be better mothers by following each other’s examples”, Amina, one of the women in the group, shares.

Although over 50 women from the community were participating in the group discussion, my attention kept drifting to Rehema. At 55 years old, Rehema was a mother of four and a grandmother of five. Moreover, Rehema was a farmer, a community leader, an educator, an entrepreneur and a fierce advocate for gender equality.

Rehema, her youngest grandchild and I

I like to imagine that if wisdom was personified, it would look a lot like Rehema. She stood up and addressed the group with the type of confidence that can only be earned through years of trials, tribulations and triumph. Although we did not speak the same language, when Rehema spoke, we all listened.

In an effort to soak up the moment, I furiously jotted down notes as she spoke. Here are three grandmotherly pieces of wisdom that I recorded in my scribbles.

1. Girls and boys need to be treated equally

Rehema reflected on the difference between her experience and the experience of her children,

“When I raised my children, men dominated. Their father had the final say over everything. […] The first 1000 days of my pregnancy were not great. I didn’t have the proper education and I raised my children based on what seemed normal at the time. When I was pregnant, I didn’t take any rest, I just continued to work in the field, serve my husband, and take care of all the household activities.”

Today, Rehema advocates that men and women should be treated equally and share household responsibilities. Her experiences and the education she received as part of the peer group has made her a passionate gender equality advocate.

A girl and a boy in Tanzania receiving the same gift

“I teach my children to raise their children without discrimination. They should know that both male and female children have equal rights. We shouldn’t discriminate between girls and boys. Men and women should share in household chores and boys and girls should get the same gifts.”

2. Educated women are more likely to raise healthy families

Women who have access to the resources and education needed to make informed decisions about their health, are more likely to raise healthy families.

With sadness, Rehema recounts the story of her teenage daughter who became pregnant. “One of my children became pregnant while she was in school but did not want to admit that she was pregnant. She gave birth in the latrine. She was so ashamed and she wanted to throw the baby in to the toilet.”

In that moment, all Rehema could do was show her daughter love and acceptance. Today, the baby is two years old and the family is doing well. However, Rehema still regrets not being more proactive in talking to her daughter about sexual and reproductive health and rights.

“It’s a problem that I did not give her a good education when she was a teenager. When a child reaches puberty, they should be taught about their bodies. Education can help protect against unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. I should have educated her better so that she would not get pregnant while still in school.”

Now, Rehema is comfortable having conversations about sexual health with her children, grandchildren and young members of the community. She advises them about family planning, promotes condom use and urges them to regularly seek health services.

A girl in Mbuka Area, Tanzania, studying for her future

Rehema believes that the importance of education is the same for women all over the world.

“If all women receive good education, they will have healthier families. When one woman is educated, it is like ten women are educated. We will continue to learn and grow and then the women of the world can come together and demand equal rights.”

3. A grandmother’s love is like no other

After a long and exhausting day out in the sun, our group was running very low on energy. We nearly jumped for joy when Rehema stood up and announced that she was going to feed us. She presented the food with the same pride that my own grandmothers might have before serving a holiday meal. Except, unlike my holiday meals, this meal was grown and sourced completely from the expertise of the women in the group.

Rehema presenting some of the ingredients used to prepare the meal

“A large percentage of children in this area are malnourished,” explains Rehema, “So we have decided to use local crops that almost every family grows to make sure that they are getting the different food groups.”

The orange fleshed sweet potatoes, sunflower oil, beans, honey and milk that were served were all harvested at farms and crops nearby.

The food was delicious and Rehema joyously watched as we finished off our plates. Her hospitality communicated love.

“To me it feels great to be a mom. It feels good to do things for others and to feel that I have added something in the family. I raised my children in a loving environment. Whenever I come around, I am so happy that my children and grandchildren welcome me. I love them all.”

The Changing Role of Grandparents

Globally, as our population ages and life expectancy continues to rise, the roles that grandparents play will continue to change. In Canada, we have more living grandparents today than ever before recorded in history. In many of the communities where we work, grandmothers have a traditional influence on household sexual and reproductive health and rights. The mothers and mother-in-laws of new parents can be either positive or harmful gatekeepers to a new family’s access to health services. In the case of Rehema, we have seen the power that an informed and involved grandmother can have on not just her family, but her entire community. As we continue to have conversations about maternal and child health, we must include the original matriarchs; grandmothers.

To learn more about gender equality in Shinyanga Region, Tanzania, watch the video.