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Updated: Apr 27, 2023

This month Girl Rising team members including CEO Christina Lowery, Future Rising Director Anna Hall, Kenya Country Manager Debbie Odenyi, and Global Program Manager Richa Hingorani spent time together with our extraordinary program partners and Future Rising Fellows in Kenya in order evaluate our impact identify gap, understand our partners’ needs. Debbie and Richa share their experiences here.

In the cramped and narrow streets of Kibera, Kenya, small shops selling essentials and salons line the roads, while women and young girls sit outside, fanning themselves with bamboo hand fans. Many houses lack basic amenities like bathrooms, and water supply can be scarce. In Nairobi, where unrest and protests against inflation fill the streets, groups of young men sit pensively while a sense of listlessness pervades the air. However, amid this languor, a group of schoolgirls dressed in uniforms stand out, exuding energy and hope. Macrine Akinyi, a 14-year-old enrolled in high school, is one of them. When we stopped to talk with her and ask her how she liked school, her smile spoke volumes. But this wasn't always the case.

Macrine attended a community primary school and lacked foundational literacy and numeracy skills. She seldom participated in class fearing embarrassment and ridicule. Macrine kept to herself. Her parents, who hadn’t been to school themselves, could only provide limited guidance to her education. With time, Macrine learned about Sunflower Trust, based in Kibera and a Girl Rising curriculum partner. Sunflower Trust offers after-school programs for girls who are at risk of dropping out of school. Through this program, Macrine was introduced to six girls who had vastly different circumstances in different countries, but who shared deep similarities. These are six of the girls featured in the original Girl Rising film that premiered in 2013. Macrine remembers Ruksana from India and Wadley from Haiti most fondly because she relates to Ruksana’s struggle at school and Wadley’s determination to keep learning. As the Sunflower team took Macrine through Girl Rising’s life-skills curriculum, they were struck by her intelligence and her potential, and also recognized that she lacked opportunities. With each module and accompanying activities, Macrine felt her confidence steadily increase. Today, after completing the full curriculum, Macrine is one of the most self-confident girls in the Sunflower Trust program.

Macrine, now 14 years old, never shies away from sharing her dreams, aspirations and the experiences that she gained during the Girl Rising sessions. Despite the barriers she faces, Macrine mirrored Wadley’s determination and continued going to school despite her father’s inability to pay school levies. It has been a case of real life imitating reel life, Macrine was able to attend school just like Wadley because of her self-advocacy.

As one of the most stable economies of East Africa, the world’s eyes are set on Kenya. The country is widely regarded as an innovation hub demonstrating cutting-edge technology and engineering even in pre-pandemic years. When juxtaposed with the high incidence of drop-out rate and teenage pregnancies, a different lived reality is revealed. In mere two months of January and February 2022, Kenya’s Ministry of Health reported 45,700+ pregnancies amongst girls aged 10 to 19 years, averaging 775 teenage births daily. Early pregnancies lead to a myriad of social and economic challenges pushing girls and their families further into poverty. As a young country, Kenya must focus on building a future generation that is aware of their rights, that is able to navigate uncertainties and setbacks, and one that dares to dream big for themselves.

Through our own experience of working in five counties in Kenya for the last four years, we understand that we must double-down on our efforts and ensure that girls and women have the opportunity to script their own lives and shape their own futures. Our week in Nairobi earlier this month has helped hone our strategic vision going forward to include:

  • Creating platforms to foster peer-to-peer learning: Though schools are meant to inspire peer-to-peer learning, the traditional way of teaching often limits conversations among peers. To help build greater camaraderie among peers and open pathways for knowledge sharing, we believe making platforms available to adolescents where they can share their thoughts, opinions, feelings without any judgment or fear of being reprimanded will be crucial. Such platforms can deepen social ties and help adolescents build a reliable network, support system that they can turn to in times of crisis.

  • Introducing adolescents to role models: Seeing is believing and what you cannot see, you cannot imagine for yourself. Our biggest takeaway from the Girl Rising life skills curriculum has been the importance of introducing adolescents to individuals like them i.e., their age, living a similar life, hailing from similar backgrounds. Presenting a story similar to theirs wherein the protagonist is able to surmount their challenges has always been uplifting for adolescents. Knowing that these protagonists are not actors, but real stories of real girls makes change seem more plausible. The Girl Rising protagonists, today, are a source of inspiration for many where we work. Going forward, we would like to convene meetings between adolescents and women/girls from Kenya who have shattered stereotypes and achieved their goals.

  • Using storytelling to build adolescents’ voice and agency: As natural storytellers, we all use stories to understand our past and shape our future. With the advent of social media, stories are widely available and circulated to drive home a core message. Building adolescents’ storytelling skills is a form of life-skill that can help them cultivate their own identity better, their relationships with others, how they identify themselves, and what they stand for. Storytelling also provides an outlet to express your feelings and emotions - all of which is necessary for cognitive development. Our immediate priority for Kenya, therefore, includes piloting a storytelling module with adolescents that allows them to gain a new skill and a new perspective about themselves.

Having impacted over 14,000 students in the last four years, we are keen to keep building on our programming and ensuring that adolescents remain at the front and center of our vision at Girl Rising. We are working towards building a tomorrow where all girls learn, rise and thrive and though the journey ahead of us may be long and arduous, it’s stories of girls like Macrine that fuel our determination. Being able to share her dreams and identify a support system has helped her life take a different path. A path she once only dreamt of, a path many had said won’t be possible for her given her family’s economic background. Macrine today is a leader in a tech-skills class and helps other girls learn how to operate a laptop, how to code, set-up web pages and much more. This isn’t the Macrine that came to Sunflower in 2019. This is the Macrine of the future.

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