Fierce faith

See the picture of Mary praying? Her faith is huge. It’s fierce!

Mary lives in a village orphanage, with 40 other children, in a rural area of Burma. Every child there has a story. What does it take to really give hope? How do we empower a child? Make an impact for life?

Whenever I visit, I make a point of setting aside time to play – of spending time as children should – playing on the swings, skipping, riding around the soccer field on a bike…try that wearing a traditional Burmese longi!

Having fun, laughing. Far away from the horrors that brought them to this place of safety, and the fears that still visit them in their nightmares.

Mary had a beaming, infectious smile and soaked up every ounce of affection I gave her. I was heart-broken to learn that she had been assaulted like no young child should ever be violated. And yet she had a strength and demeanour beyond her years, from which it was evident that she was now in a home where there was an abundance of love and nurturing. Mary was learning how to trust and to share, and most of all, to forgive. I believe that this is the foundation that we need to provide these young girls who have suffered needlessly in whatever circumstance. To really come out of poverty, pain and loss we need to start by showing them love. This is the start of a healthy mind and spirit that will lead to a healthy life of learning and growing into a productive woman in her community.

Mary praying: she loves God so much and knows that there is hope because this is what she is taught by her caregivers. This is what she experiences every day. Her radiant face relays a thousand words! Mary is an outstanding young girl who has taught me much about my own life.

African Girls Empowerment Program: Mathare Valley, Part 2

It was a time I will never forget, walking through the Mathare Valley slums and hearing the terrible stories. Scavenging every day, just to find scraps to feed their families, mothers would succumb in desperation to selling their girls.

Mathare Valley, Brenda and JaneJane Otai is a national who grew up in this slum. She has a deep commitment to help these people. Understanding the perspective of slum dwellers so well, she was offered the amazing opportunity to work with Compassion International, which is how I met her.

We were discussing the difficult situations that pre-pubescent girls face. Young girls are naïve targets for sexual predators and they have to deal with many health issues from unhygienic menstruation practices, pregnancies, STD’s and AIDS.

Mathare Valley Brenda inspects fem hygiene articles
This is the material girls are using for their periods; it is dirty and causes infections.

It was clear to me that we needed to educate these girls on some basic health topics. Eventually, Jane and I developed a program to provide girls with feminine hygiene products, underwear and pain medication, as well as information about nutrition, health, sex and cultural issues. The “African Girls Empowerment Program” included an educational video that could be mass produced to share this knowledge throughout African communities, with a priority to girls living in the slums.

Our pilot project in July 2006 was a huge success. The morale of the girls participating in the program grew and as they gained confidence, they began to attend school again. Here are some of the highlights from the program:

  • 95% attendance by both the participants and the facilitators.
  • The girls gained knowledge related to themselves, their sexuality, and understood the need to appreciate themselves. Majority of the girls gained self-confidence.
  • Literature regarding pertinent issues affecting their lives was made available to the girls.
  • Behavior change documentary was shown to the girls where the theme included drug abuse, peer influence and HIV/AIDS. Some of the responses the girls had after watching the ‘The Dose” included:
    • pledging to avoid bad peer groups that are capable of influencing them into drugs,
    • agreeing that drug use and abuse is a bad habit and therefore should be avoided.
  • Facilitation of the trainings was made enjoyable through the acquisition of more reference materials for both the girls and facilitators.
  • Providing sanitary pads to the girls also boosted the girls’ self-confidence significantly.
  • It was felt that the girls participating learned to understand that they are of great value and can make decisions for their lives.

From this program we learned how other communities could benefit from crucial health education to improve the lives of people living in extreme poverty.

Mathare Valley slum school, Brenda being shown how to dance

Education is empowering: Mathare Valley, Part 1

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, theMathare jump rope precious momentsir 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.

WaMathare in the classroomlking through the slums is one of those times in my life that I will never forget.

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.

Mathare Valley slum, Jane Otai with Brenda and group from Compassion International

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

Mathare Valley_mattress fibres used instead of feminine hygiene productsMenstruating 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!