Growing up in a middle class, multi-cultural environment, it was completely normal for me to be surrounded by a variety of languages, a buoyant mix of views and different perspectives. There were lively debates, there was no talk of prejudice; I loved all my friends the same. My beliefs were celebrated, my sex was not a barrier. I did not yet understand that this was not the way of the world.
When I began to travel, I noticed that what I had embraced in my family and local community was far from the norm. It wasn’t a subtle undertone of disregard, but an out-and-out hatred of differences, that struck me as alien. Why did people show so much vehemence toward different religions, different cultures, different statuses and, most of all, different genders?
Over the years I have learned that one of the most powerful emotions behind unjust reactions is fear of the unknown. It is why I believe so strongly that education is the way forward. By providing access to knowledge and training, educators empower people to make good choices and to take charge of their lives.
Mathare Valley slums
I first travelled to Kenya in 2004, when I had the privilege of visiting many different projects with a group from Compassion International. At the time, their main focus was developing schools and programs in Nairobi’s Mathare Valley, to support families “in becoming independent and sustainable”.
My memories are a compilation of moments ranging from incredible joy to intense pain. We witnessed mothers desperate to provide daily sustenance for their children, and at best a little something to ease the hunger: entrails, scraps, scavenged items. Life is a filthy existence in a struggle to just survive, day by day. In the midst of it all, an uplifting moment of playing jump rope and singing at the top of our voices.
I was pleasantly surprised to learn how well-run the schools supported by Compassion International appeared to be. Despite living in desperate slum conditions, the children were all perfectly outfitted in their uniforms and I remember their beautiful smiles and the incredible talent when they danced and sang for us. It amazed me at how much hope they shared in the midst of their seemingly hopeless life in the slums. Education was their ticket to a better life and groups like Compassion International have infused hope into these precious lives.
On our tour around the slum, I soon realized that there were some significant issues regarding the girls in particular. Many were not attending the school and some were dropping out for a variety of reasons. One of my African colleagues, Jane Otai, helped answer some of my questions. Having grown up in Mathare herself, Jane was committed to empowering girls in the slum by educating them about sex and health issues.
Menstruation is a taboo
Menstruating girls were desperate, using whichever materials they could find, including contaminated pieces of mattress fabric and wool, instead of feminine hygiene products. Many became infected and sick with fever; there were ashamed of menstruation and feared staining their dresses. Already lacking in confidence, their insecurities were amplified on a monthly basis. Hunger, hormones, and their female bodies developing throughout puberty were only compounded by the pressure of lurking sex predators…and AIDS. According to Jane:
“There is an herbalist in the Mathare slum who is known to heal women from HIV and also to enable the barren ones to conceive. He takes the herb, crushes it, mixes it with some liquid concoction and drinks it himself. After he has swallowed it, he passes it sexually to the women. I wonder why they don’t ask him to give them the herb so that they can mix it for their husbands. It has never occurred to the women that this is a scam. I wonder how many have had sex with him in an effort to get cured or to conceive?! None of the barren girls has ever conceived nor has anyone been cured from HIV. In fact, I‘m sure he has spread the virus to the ones in need of children. He explains the failure of treatment to the women not having followed the procedures to the letter.”
Desperation and lack of knowledge leads to this kind of situation all over the world. Education is a way to help people help themselves. Educate to empower!
After that initial visit, Jane and I stayed in touch and we later developed a program together to provide exactly the empowerment to help girls’ confidence soar!