WGEP Program Manager, Lindsay Bingaman, shared a firsthand account from meeting with a WGEP university scholar in July 2021.
Girls in rural Kenya work tirelessly to lift themselves out of poverty, despite facing many challenges. “The challenges in my life motivate me to be better,” Nancy Kawira shared, “I know that if I can work hard enough to get through school and help my siblings, I will be a better person and have a better life for my family in the future.”
Nancy is 19 years old, and has been a scholar supported by WGEP and grassroots partner Tharaka Women’s Welfare Program (TWWP) since 2016. She attended the Alternative Rite of Passage (ARP) in 2016, where she learned about the harmful effects of female genital mutilation (FGM), learned about her body and her rights, and about the importance of staying in school.
Nancy is the primary caretaker for her four siblings, including her little brother, Emmanuel, who sat next to Nancy as we spoke. I met with Nancy while she was on break between her first and second years of university. She is studying to be a teacher at Tharaka University, and expressed a love her children. She also hopes to be a business woman, and open up a shop to sell produce. She told me that she does not wish to stay in Tharaka forever, and that she would love to travel to other counties within Kenya and meet other people from different tribes.
Nancy showed me the mud hut that her and her siblings live in, as well as the small field of green grams and millet that she farms to trade for other food such as rice or vegetables, so that her siblings can eat. When Nancy is on holiday from school, she also tries to find work as a housekeeper and other part-time jobs, so that she can contribute to her siblings’ school fees.
Nancy’s father died when she was young, and when I asked about her mother, Nancy replied, “She got sick and now her mind is gone. I haven’t seen her in several years.” In Tharaka, most of the population doesn’t speak openly about their mental health, and it’s common for many people, such as Nancy’s mother, to struggle silently and alone.
Nancy does her best to use healthy coping skills when she is feeling stressed. When I asked Nancy what support systems she has in place, she explained that her aunt and grandmother help out whenever they can. However, her grandmother is 95! She also mentioned that she has good friends at her school that she can talk to about her challenges. “They understand and can offer advice, because they also have similar struggles,” Nancy told me, “And we like to play handball together at school for fun!”
Nancy is one of nearly 800 scholars that WGEP supported last year during the pandemic across Kenya & Senegal; providing partial scholarships, mentoring, menstrual products, food supplies, solar lanterns, mobile phones, books, and soap. Nancy pointed to food insecurity, and struggles tuning into remote learning lessons via her cell phone as two major issues during school closures in 2020. “It was very difficult because I had to also help my siblings. They rely on me.”
Nancy told me that her biggest challenge is finding money to pay the rent and buy food for her and her siblings. She says that she struggles to meet her and her siblings’ basic needs, and wishes for more work to be able to provide for them more consistently.
Dorcas Kinyua, Sisters Read Officer for TWWP, confided in me, “When girls in Tharaka are desperate for money, they often feel like they have no choice but to get married young so that a man can help provide for them. Our goal is to provide them with enough support and guidance so that they can get through school without having to make such drastic decisions.” Dorcas proceeded to leave Nancy with some words of wisdom, “You are a hardworking, bright, and beautiful girl. Men are going to chase you. But you should wait for the right one and the right time, don’t feel rushed to get married. Your future is so bright.”
Nancy is not alone in the challenges that she faces. According to recent COVID-19 gender assessment on Kenya conducted by UN Women, UNFPA, CARE, Oxfam, Unilever, State Department for Gender, Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, and the Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis:
Additionally, in a June 2021 report by the Population Council, they found that 97% of adolescents reported challenges accessing learning materials during the pandemic. When schools reopened in January 2021, 16% of girls did not return to school, 39% of girls reported experiencing physical violence during the pandemic, about half of all adolescents said they had experienced symptoms of depression, and 75% reported skipping meals when their families could not afford food. In total, at least 250,000 girls did not re-enroll in school.
WGEP works together with grassroots partners in rural Senegal & Kenya to support women and girls. If you want to find out more about how to support girls like Nancy, please visit WGEP’s website to donate or learn more about how you can get involved. You can stay up to date on our work by visiting us on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, or Twitter.