Last month’s Kenyan general election has been hailed by the international community as a triumph of democracy and rule of law. After the clashes of the previous election in 2007, the lack of violence this time around appears to signal a more peaceful chapter for Kenya. But what about the generation of Kenyan young women who are under threat and fighting for their futures every day?
Kibera, the largest slum in Kenya, can be a dangerous place. Much of the violence in 2007 occurred in Kibera, where hundreds of thousands of people live on one square mile of land with limited access to clean water, sanitation, and electricity. Poverty and high unemployment in Kibera have contributed to an epidemic of gender-based violence there, and adolescent girls are at particular risk. According to a survey of Kibera adolescents in 2007, 43% of adolescent girls report that their first sexual experience was coerced or forced. And 60% of adolescent girls are reported as being frightened that they will be raped.
Hopelessness and Kibera seem to go hand-in-hand — until you actually spend time there, and meet the bright and resourceful people who make it such a dynamic community.
Since 2010, I have served as vice president of the board of directors of Uweza Aid Foundation, which empowers Kibera residents to break the cycle of poverty. Uweza, which means “ability” in Kiswahili, focuses largely on working with youth, as nearly half of Kibera’s population is under the age of 15, and an estimated 75% of Kenya’s population is under the age of 25. Current Uweza projects include educational scholarships for primary and secondary school, a soccer academy, after-school tutoring, journalism, dance, and art clubs, and life skills trainings. Uweza also runs its own community center in the heart of Kibera, providing a safe space for youth to study, play, develop their talents, and learn valuable life skills.
I recently spoke with several young women from Kibera who are participants in Uweza’s programs, ranging in age from 14 to 18, about the challenges that they face. When asked to name the biggest problem for girls in their community, half of the participants mentioned rape. As Mercy*, age 14, stated, “Raping is the biggest problem. Some men like to threaten girls.”
In response to jarring statements like Mercy’s, Uweza recently invited No Means No Worldwide to give a two-day training on self-defense and life skills to more than thirty girls at our community center. No Means No’s trainers, who are familiar with daily life in Kibera, role-played common scenarios of harassment and assault. They also emphasized that boyfriends can be rapists, and gave practical advice about avoiding and escaping from dangerous situations.
Above: Young girls in Kibera learn how to assert and protect themselves from harassment and violence at Uweza Community Center.
I have lived and worked in East Africa, in both urban and rural areas, and I am familiar with the gender dynamics that disempower and subjugate women. As the girls practiced standing up for themselves against harassers and predators, using punching bags and screaming “NO,” I felt as though I was witnessing a revolution. The change in the girls was immediately evident: as 14-year-old Irene* said, “Now I know that when you are talking to a boy, you don’t have to look down.”
Uweza’s work to empower young women continues: Last week we launched a new girls’ club, led by an adult woman from Kibera who is also a trained counselor. The club is dedicated to tackling the issues facing adolescent girls in Kibera. Named by the participating girls, the club is called Golden Girls Power, because, according to one member, “we are powerful and valuable.”
With its peaceful presidential election, Kenya appears to be on a positive path. But in the absence of so-called political violence, let’s not forget about the epidemic of gender-based violence. Let’s make an investment in protecting and empowering the young women of Kenya.
*Names of girls have been changed.