Kenya sits along the eastern coast of Africa. It is a fairly small country—roughly twice the size of Nevada—but it is home to the breathtaking Great Rift Valley, numerous volcanoes, glaciers, and some of Africa's most fertile farmlands. Kenya has traditionally had a strong, agricultural-based economy, in recent years it has declined. Now more than half the population lives below the poverty line. This is only exacerbated by the pervasive corruption that has encumbered the country for decades.
On top of corruption and poverty, the people of Kenya are oppressed by the HIV and AIDS pandemic, which has orphaned over 1 million children as of 2011. In fact, according to CIA's World Factbook, Kenya boasts the 11th highest AIDS mortality rate in the world. Combined with other factors almost half of Kenya's population is under the age of 18.
In rural places, like the North Rift Valley, traditional cultural practices make Kenya a particularly precarious place for girls, since it's appropriate to marry off daughters as young as possible in exchange for a dowry—which usually consists of goats and cows. These same girls are often subject to female genital mutilation (FGM), which is considered a rite of passage before girls can enter into adulthood.
Sadly, FGM marks an irreversible change in the course of many girls' lives. Approximately 90 percent of victims of FGM will drop out of school by age 13, and once girls are circumcised, they are often hurriedly married off to much older suitors who offer the greatest dowries. Education is seen as the key to female empowerment because it provides an alternative from the harmful practices of FGM and child marriage, and gives girls the opportunity to take control of the direction of their lives.
The beginnings of change
Thankfully, the Kenyan government is beginning to address the enormity of this problem. A 2008 national report by the Kenyan Ministry of Education states: "The realization of girls' and women's empowerment through education has been impeded by a number of factors such as cultural and religious attitudes and practices, infrastructural limitations, inadequate policy guidelines, poverty, HIV/AIDS, lack of community awareness as well as lack of adequate female role models, especially in marginal areas."
Thankfully, the government is not the only advocate for these girls. In 2009, with help from the Kenya Aid Programme and World Vision, St. Elizabeth High School was built. This school is now home to more than 200 local girls, and its success is indicative of fundamental community change in that hundreds of families are choosing to forfeit the dowries their daughters would have secured for them and, instead, are investing in their daughters' futures.
On the front lines
One woman who has been crucial in this change is Caroline Menach, principal of St. Elizabeth Girls Secondary School in West Pokot County, Kenya, a school that advocates for education and community involvement. Here is her story:
Female advocacy through education is a mission that is very close to my heart. As principal of St. Elizabeth Girls Secondary School, I lead, manage, and provide strategic direction for a school of 230 students, 13 teachers, and 11 non-teaching staff.
One of the many reasons I am passionate about providing an alternative life through education for West Pokot girls is because I was one of them not too long ago. I am from West Pokot, and when I was 14 years old, I escaped from a FGM attempt that ended in the circumcision of my two sisters. It was by the miraculous hand of God that I was able to run away to the home of my aunt for a week-long church fellowship during the time when I knew my family was preparing to circumcise my sisters and me. When I returned home, I witnessed my sisters' pain during the healing process, and I give thanks to God for softening my mother to allow me to attend the fellowship and be spared from this brutal practice.
I went on to attain my Bachelor of Education Degree from Egerton University in Njoro, Kenya, and I am currently undertaking a Masters degree in Agriculture. I have been blessed with two wonderful children, ages ten and twelve.
I was able to avoid child marriage and gain an education, and I am now an advocate for girls to do the same. I would not have the platform to advocate for them if I had not been spared myself. Now it is my time to help those in need.
A life of advocacy
My passion first took shape in 1999, the year I finished college. I partnered with three other women, and traveled around the county encouraging Pokot girls to be serious and committed to their education. We hosted sessions that taught girls vital information on HIV/AIDS, and the setbacks of early marriage and female genital mutilation.
I founded a community-based organization called Yangat Girl Child Sensitization Group. Itserves the entire West Pokot area, and deals with community empowerment and the dangers of upholding retrogressive practices. As founder and current chairperson, I am overjoyed because this organization has continued to grow and is now covering issues related to health, early marriages, early pregnancy, and the promotion of education and Global Water, Health and Sanitization (WASH) programs.
My journey to the position as principal of St. Elizabeth began in 2001 when I was employed by the Teachers Service Commission of Kenya and posted to St. Cecilia Girls Secondary School. I was later transferred to Kapenguria Boys High School until I was promoted and posted as the head of St. Elizabeth's Girls Secondary School.
A day in the life
A typical day at St. Elizabeth begins very early with "Arise and Shine" morning prayers. After these, the girls begin preps (dawn studies), which run from 5to 6:30 a.m., followed by an hour of breakfast.
After breakfast, we have assemblies that consist of 15-minute devotionals. These are essential for our community because they strengthen our relationship with our Creator as we submit all the works of our hands to the Lord. As the principal and role model for the girls, these assemblies help to set the tone for my students to grow into knowing and loving Jesus as their all in all.
Lessons begin, and go along all day with a brief midmorning break and an hour for lunch. Their studies are completed at 4 p.m., and the girls are dismissed for an hour of game time followed by the evening meal. The rest of the night is spent in more preps (evening studies), which can last until 9:30. Then, the girls have ten minutes of prayers. Lights are out by 10 p.m.
I am with the girls for the first portion of the day. I supervise the early morning activities, and I teach lessons in Biology and Agriculture from 8-9:30 a.m. For the rest of the day, I attend to my managerial and leadership tasks, as well as heading up public relations for the school, which often means meeting with parents and other visitors.
I thank God for World Vision, Margo Day, and other donors for supporting girl child initiatives in the region. Their contributions have made my faith in God grow, and their example encourages me to do more and more to improve girls' lives on a daily basis. I am convinced that through strong partnership and pooling of resources, we can facilitate significant and long-lasting change in the lives of our people. St. Elizabeth Girls Secondary School is a testimony.
Praise and glory be to God.
On June 1, 2012, World Vision expanded their work in Kenya by establishing the Kenya Child Protection and Education Project, which focuses on improving the circumstances of girls in Kenya's North Rift Province. The project includes building primary and secondary schools for the 17,000 children who live in the specified areas as well as creating change from within the community by changing attitudes about early marriage and FGM and making advocates for female education.
Amber Stenberg is an editorial intern at Today's Christian Woman. Follow her on Twitter @stenberg_a.