I visited many schools in the last few months. The visits were to attend a Girls for Leaders club session in which champions of change engage boys and girls on conversations about puberty, sexuality, child marriage and other issues that are relevant for the teenagers.
At other times, I visited schools with my colleague Harun to find out if there are any issues of child marriage, female genital mutilation or alcohol dependency in the area. And again at other times we would visits schools to introduce the Girls for Leaders clubs and distribute sanitary pads.
One time, after the distribution of sanitary pads, a female deputy headteacher carried me in her arms like a newly married husband would carry his wife over their doorstep as tradition sometimes requires. She sang, danced around with me in her arms while everybody was clapping and singing with her. She praised Dandelion for helping to keep girls in school by distributing sanitary pads and teaching them about sexuality, puberty and respectful relationships.
Girl for Leaders starts with the provision of sanitary pads for a year, which is one of the key reasons why a lot of girls not only miss school, but also perform less good in school and therefore do not graduate to secondary school. It cannot be overstated how much this is helping them. We talk about girls who believe that the blood is coming from their stomach, where the food is. And in order to stop this, they use whatever they can – one girl suggested a piece of the mattress during one of the Girls for Leaders sessions. Such unclean material causes rashes and discomfort.
Following the first session of the distribution of reusable sanitary pads and introduction of the topic of sexuality, the girls and boys receive their handbook which they can use in addition to the weekly classes. The classes are conducted by a chosen school teacher twice a month, one session is conducted by a champion of change who is an expert in a certain issue and most of them are young people who are passionate about youth empowerment, and one session is conducted by Dandelion.
Even after my colleagues’ presentation in class, the kids had a lot of questions about hygiene, their bodies and how their life will change within the years of adolescence. Certainly, their understanding of personal and physical development grows in the beginning of “Girls For Leader Clubs”, I saw first hand in the last month, how much kids are growing personally because they are having the opportunity to explore what it means to be themselves and learn that a lot of the changes they are going through are not only normal, but healthy.
In Kenya, talking about sexuality is still a taboo. Such an environment is the perfect, fertile ground for the development of myth and misconceptions. A lot of myths exist about pregnancy. For instance, that you cannot get pregnant if you have sex in the dark, when you are having sex for the first time, or when you do not see the penis during the act. Of course, people learn from their experiences. However, in the cultural climate in Kenya where it is seen as impossible for parents to talk to their children about intimate issues, the learning gained from these experience is discussed very little and often covered by silence.
Schools have put sexuality education on the curriculum, but only from the secondary level. In some rural areas in Kenya, this can mean that a 16 year old, who is still in primary school because the parents could not afford school fees earlier, or because they miss school regularly in order to help their parents to earn money, has never heard about puberty, menstruation and protection from STIs and pregnancy.
That is why I love the Girls For Leaders program, as it addresses issues that are normally not discussed openly and guides young people to become informed and confidant. I also love the approach of closely supporting the girls and boys to set goals for themselves. For example, in the dream book, they can set themselves one big and four small objectives. Each month they report on their progress and get tips from the class on how to tailor their approach so that they are even more successful in pursuing their dreams. Little successes are celebrated and they also get some tasks from the champions of change which help them to challenge themselves more. The overall objective is for them to find out what they want in life, have hope about their future and learn to overcome their shyness.
In the past weeks I worked alongside Harun on integrating a stronger gender as well as human rights perspective into the handbook. We reviewed the last version of the handbook and edited it according to our goal. We also included more pictures to help the children understand the changes in their body better.
In addition, I worked on participatory guidelines for the champions of change in order to ensure that the children are supported to speak up and share their ideas in the Girls For Leaders club sessions. We also conducted a training for the champions of change and identified a school in which the increased focus on participation will be tested and immediately implemented.
All of these experiences would have been worth much less without the amazing welcome that Wendo, Shaeez and their family gave me. Throughout the months here I felt at home and enjoyed my conversations with them and my colleagues that helped me to understand the culture and traditions better.