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Window Into AVFP’s Urban Women Empowerment Program

WomenStrong Kenya

Window Into AVFP’s Urban Women Empowerment Program

“Just because something is a tradition doesn’t make it right,” President Obama said this summer to thousands of enthusiastic Kenyans in a Nairobi stadium.

“Around the world, there is a tradition of repressing women and treating them differently, and not giving them the same opportunities, and husbands beating their wives, and children not being sent to school. Those are traditions. Treating women and girls as second-class citizens, those are bad traditions. They need to change,“ President Obama asserted. “They’re holding you back.”

Alice Visionary Foundation Project (AVFP) is determined that women and girls be held back no longer. AVFP’s Urban Women Empowerment Program, developed in partnership with WomenStrong International (WSI), is aimed specifically at helping the women and girls of Manyatta, the largest slum in Kenya’s third largest city, Kisumu, escape from severe urban poverty and improve the lives of their families and community.

The entry point for this ambitious agenda is the simple savings group, a “Group Savings and Loan” model developed for rural communities by CARE International and adapted by AVFP for an urban context. AVFP now has seven GS&L Groups in Manyatta and one in a neighboring slum, all consisting mostly of busy women, mothers and grandmothers who show up for meetings once weekly, transact their financial business meticulously, pocket their new personal savings and finally have a little time to talk. It’s during their talk time that we heard, early on a Tuesday morning several months ago, of girl after young girl getting raped on her way to school, about a recent suicide by a 14-year-old, about another child, 11, waiting to deliver her baby of rape at the District hospital, about the need “to keep our 9, 10, 11 and 12-year-old girls from getting pregnant, because they are getting raped.”

The child about to deliver her own child and many of the other girls, the women said, have been raped mostly by the boda-boda or bicycle taxi drivers, mostly young men whose rough upbringings were generally characterized by poverty, parental neglect and domestic abuse. Most had witnessed alcoholism and beatings in the home and had fallen victim themselves to some of the violence. The boys, we were told, are growing up to be just like their fathers. And the girl who hanged herself from the front door of her family’s shack had been shamed and cruelly tormented by her stepmother and her teachers, of all people. The women shook their heads; what can we do? they asked.

Alice Visionary and WomenStrong took action. Invited by the School District’s Zonal Officer to lead training in how to handle the children in one’s charge, AVFP organized a workshop called, “Positive Discipline in Everyday Parenting,” for teachers, administrators and parents. The results of the workshop, which makes use of a curriculum developed by Save the Children, have been nothing short of magical: Manyatta students have reported how much kinder their teachers have been with them, parents and teachers have acknowledged openly that the training has transformed their views and ways of dealing with their children and students, and Kisumu school administrators have asked AVFP to repeat the course in every school zone.

To address more directly the specific needs of young girls, AVFP and WomenStrong also run four Girls’ Clubs in Manyatta schools, where the girls work on their self-expression, advocate for issues that matter to them, learn about personal hygiene and sexual and reproductive health, and console each other when one comes in telling of what befell her last night behind the kiosk where her mother had sent her out to buy water after dark. Girls’ Club graduates persuaded AVFP to host a Teens’ Club, so they could continue to come together for such sessions, and a Boys’ Club has also been formed at one school, by an enterprising male teacher who sees the boys’ high spirits and lack of focus and who wants them to be exposed to other activities, skills and role models than those championed by the idle alley toughs and boda-boda drivers.

But AVFP hasn’t stopped there.

The success of the savings groups and the women’s increased earning power have provided openings to introduce other ideas – AVFP staff have shown the women how to set up “vertical gardens,” so that even in their tight quarters, they can still grow vegetables or fruits and eat more healthily, and have encouraged the purchase and use of clean-burning cookstoves. Thanks to WomenStrong’s ingenious Board member Prof. Geeta Mehta, AVFP has also introduced her “social capital credits” barter scheme, whereby the women have begun to clean up their neglected neighborhood, in exchange for which the landlords have agreed to give them a portion of private land that the women can plant and turn into a community garden.

Gardening together will be a luxury in Manyatta, where life is hard, and where even the simple chore of procuring water or buying fish is a dangerous opportunity for predators (even the fish vendors themselves trade sex for fish!) to assault the women sexually, leaving them even more vulnerable, discouraged and disempowered.

To counter such community-busting influences, AVFP and WomenStrong have offered mentoring and women’s leadership workshops for some of the best women savers, who now, in turn, are reaching out to mentor others.

These are major, if individual, successes. But all of this is hard, uphill work, in a clearly imperiled community actually deemed “one of Kenya’s safest slums” last year, by a leading national security analysis firm. How off-track and tone-deaf the metrics must be, if a place where rape is an everyday occurrence could ever be called “safe!”

Maybe it’s just “a bad tradition,” the way safety is measured here; perhaps it’s a bad tradition the way safety is measured, and the way women’s safety is discounted, everywhere.

President Obama’s father’s family hails from this part of Kenya; long before he became president, he visited his step-grandma, Mama Sarah, in the tiny village of Kogelo, just outside Kisumu. Clearly feeling freer now of political considerations, President Obama called it like it is, when he spoke as kinsman and brother to thousands of adoring fans in Nairobi. Of course, we don’t know, but given his background in community organizing, his important “My Brother’s Keeper” effort to support young African-American men and the First Lady’s important White House campaign on behalf of women and girls, we would like to think that the President would approve and be proud of the work going on in Kisumu’s Manyatta, where, thanks to AVFP, women and girls are finally enjoying the chance to break with some “bad traditions” and to lead in creating some new ones.

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