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I am a believer in pursuing one's passion and enabling others to realize their potential. Working with women and girls is my passion.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

A girl mother student

What a contradiction! Mothers are not girls, and mothers are not students! But alas that’s the reality, in Kenya and other developing countries. I couldn’t help thinking about the contradictions in life where a child is supposed to be bringing up a child as I interacted with some teenage mothers mostly from Mukuru slums in Nairobi today. I got a call on Thursday this week (2nd July 09) from a Lucy a mother of over 100 girls, or is grandmother to as many children?

I met Lucy earlier this year in the course of my work. Eventually we organized for a motivation talk and my friend Catherine accompanied me.

While we interacted with these young women, or rather girls, many thoughts went through my head which I kept pondering about and posing some questions to the others as we did our best to have a few words of advice to these girls. Looking at the 50 girls, there was nothing peculiar or unique about them. They were looking smart, happy and they were no different from other 12 year olds that I know; except for one thing, the babies crying. I was touched by the courage the faces displayed. We were welcomed by a show of unique talents by the girls. There was acting, dancing, modeling and even a display of acrobats!!! I was so impressed by these as one of the volunteers in the program, Diane kept saying ‘these girls have so much talent and determination but lack the means’. Some of them looked so young that, I wondered if they had experienced the joy of being a protected child so that they can know how to protect their own child. They struggled to listen and scribble some notes, participate as they also attended to the children seeking attention.

Sometimes you could catch some blank face of a child crying as the mother looked at her as if wondering what to do. “How does such a young mother love her child without thinking that the baby is to blame for her life’s obstacles? It must take a lot of courage and determination” I posed to Catherine, “and what could be the father of this child be doing right now? Is his life disrupted in anyway?” These are questions whose answers I may never know. In a country where the laws are sometimes not implemented and even worse when it comes to laws related to child maintenance, the girl/woman carries the burdens alone.

We held an interactive motivational session where we shared tips on setting goal and clear vision for life, overcoming obstacles, learning from the past and moving on etc. These were just 50 out of the over 100 young women and girls aged between 12-22 years from Mukuru who are under the Hope for Teenage Mothers’ (HTM) project. They participated quite well displaying leadership skills and esteem they must have gained through the project. Some of the girls later shared their life experiences that left us just amazed and touched. All those who shared had one thing in common, they difficult circumstances that they had faced led them to engaging in unsafe sex ignorantly or as the only means of survival, discovering they are pregnant and dropping out of school. It was not a choice they made but situations that forced the choices on them.

They were excited today as they were about to achieve their dream of getting an education through informal schooling that was to commence at the HTM centre next week!! One could not help but notice the excitement anytime the issue of school was mentioned. They looked so determined that I can only pray they will get the strength to complete the education at the various levels. They are required to have 2 hours of schooling every week day, not an easy task for a girl mother cum student!! A boy or girl at this age is meant to be in school for about 8 hours a day, in uniform, and do her/his homework in the evening. How does this girl compete with the others in the society?

As I quoted to them a phrase from my high school principal that has always spoken to me in different ways ‘there is no platform in life, where you will be able to give excuses as to why you didn’t succeed’ I could not help but add how unfair life can be/seem, yet there is always something at the end when we overcome the struggles.

The lives these girls are facing is not unique to them. Many girls face dilemma every day. Despite the laws allowing them to go back to school, many of them do not get the opportunity due to stigma or lack of family support and sometimes the family is not able to support the girl plus her child. Some girls are fortunate to get the support and empowerment that ensures that they do not find themselves in the family way. Others are lucky to have supportive family that supports them back to school. I am still awed by a relative who in the 80s when a girl falling pregnant while in school was not only a disgrace to her family but also all her relatives; when a girl going past primary school was not such a priority, he went against the grain. These were the days when ‘punishment’ for the man responsible was to marry the girl (God help) or pay some cattle or cash. He didn’t do any of this, not only did he welcome the newborn (his grandchild) to be brought up as his own, but decided to transfer her daughter to a boarding school where she finished her education!!! However, to date some girls have to drop out of school and suffer the consequences. Still some of these are lucky to get supportive groups and get to informal learning and make better their lives.

A lot needs to be done in mentoring girls and boys in order to prevent the recurrence of this. While some get into early unplanned pregnancy due to sexual violence or sexual exploitation in search of livelihood others are forced by cultural believes and practices.

As the girls from Mukuru start the tough task of being mothers and students, I can only wish them the very best and pray hope that this will be one among many other initiatives for the girls who have dropped out of school. More so I have the hope that more girls do not have to go through the ordeal of unprepared parenthood.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Breaking the rules....proud of the women

Some article in the East African Standard caught my attention last week (Thursday 24th June 2009) ‘women Women team breaks myth to win boat race.’ This really caught my attention as I had not visualized a boat ride by a woman, let alone a competition! May be it is because I have not heard this associated with women.
The paper went on to describe the joyful event that graced the community near Lake Victoria. Children, women and men cheered wildly as the teams rowed their boats in stiff competition.
There was rhythmic drumming as the women paddled swiftly and vigorously.
At the end of the one-kilometre boat race, Kasua Women Group from Gumbe, Samia District emerged the winners, defeating four other teams…needless to point out, male teams. I was impressed by the message that was sent out by these nine agile women aged between 20 and 45 yrs of age, the young and not so young I would say. They had not only broken the myth to participate in a sport considered to be a masculine sport, but had also excelled in the same.

Reading the article, I learnt that the competition was organised Kenya Maritime Authority (KMA) at Siungu Beach, Bondo District. KMA used the occasion to educate local fishermen (yes ….men) on maritime safety.

"This water is our territory and I enjoy boat racing. I have engaged in it for the last three years," says Rose Oundo, a peasant, soon after rowing back to beach with her team at position one.

These women were racing in the greatest lake in Kenya, Lake Victoria that measures 68,800 square kilometres making it the largest tropical lake in the world and the second best fresh water lake. This is a very important resource not only for communities in this side of the country but also for any fish loving Kenyans. Boats and boat riding is associated with the main gainful activity in this lake and in the region where men do fishing for both small scale and subsistence use as well as an income generating activity. Fisheries sector is dominated by men at almost all levels and this domination together with lower status of women like it is in many cultures means that women have not benefited from this resource as they should. The participation and winning of women therefore in the race for me gives a very strong message to the women and girls, to the boys and the men, that, Yes we can.

I was not there to cheer these women, I wish I was! But I cheer them from afar since the step they have taken. The action will not only boost their own esteem but also of the girls who may have succumbed to the notion of ‘I cant do that…because it is not expected…” hence not living to their fullest. It will be a positive aspect to the socialisation of boys who may have been shown that ‘girls really cant…’. The gender division of roles has been so accepted in the society that it has been taken like it is inborn and natural. Recently, the Maendeleo Ya Wanaume popularly known as MAWE (Men Against Women’s Empowerment) gave some statistics on violence against men in the domestic arena. While the authenticity of the data remains for debate, one of the issues that they described as violence was men being ‘forced’ to undertake domestic roles that are meant for women!!!! While many argue that there has been a lot of empowerment of the girl and woman, the challenges remain rampant with the attitude of both women and men remaining unchanged largely. I was recently in a forum on reproductive health issues and one lady posed the question of “why don’t men also take precautions and also do family planning including permanent ones like vasectomy?” One gentleman jumped up and exclaimed “that is against our culture!!!”. The same gentleman thought that women can do any kind of family planning including permanently like Tubal ligation……this is not against anyone’s culture!!

While I like many of the cultural values, I also know that culture has been used to justify different behaviours and ‘going against’ this cultures has had many negative consequences hence there is need to rethink before claiming ‘that’s our culture’. Last week I learnt with sadness about Kate, a sister-in-law who has separated from her husband. Reason, she insisted on her first born daughter going to secondary school!! According to the husband’s family, their culture (not sure which particular culture since the two are from the same ethnic group but from different districts) doesn’t allow for girls to go beyond primary school!!! It doest matter that Kate’s brother was the one paying school fees. Kate herself never went beyond primary school as she got married early by her own choice, but she seems to have realised what she missed out, and is struggling to make amends.

Both men and women are sometimes or the other held bondage to some social cultural practices but have to learn when to break the ‘taboo’. The women broke the taboo and did the unexpected, so can we.