by Mia Foreman, policy analyst, International Programs
Kibera, located 5 km from the city center of Nairobi, has been called Africa’s second-largest slum with estimates of around 200,000 to 270,000 residents. Kibera has many challenges, including lack of employment, electricity, proper sanitation, and housing, and high rates of drug use and violence — especially rape. The lack of employment and education are among the biggest contributing factors to the cycle of poverty with many young people surviving through illegal activities, such as prostitution or drug dealing.
Although there are many hardships, every day local citizens are making a difference in this community. I was fortunate enough to spend time with two young ladies, ages 20 and 22, who are doing just that as members of the community-based organization Kibera Hamlet.
Kibera Hamlet was founded in 2004 by youth in Kibera and currently serves more than 150 adolescents and children from the area, 65 percent of whom are orphans and 10 percent of whom are HIV positive. The organization is involved in many activities including The Girls Empowerment Project. The overall goal of the project is to empower young girls to change their lives and decide for themselves what they want their future to look like.
The Girls Empowerment Project was created to bring together young girls to discuss the daily challenges of living in Kibera, such as early marriage, unsafe abortion, pregnancy, and female genital mutilation. The average situation for a girl growing up in Kibera is quite dire. If she is still single at a young age, chances are her family will send her out to look for money to help with the cost of living. Most of the time, this means prostitution. A girl will sleep with a man for 50 Kenya shillings (KSH), less than one U.S. dollar. This is not enough to put food on the table so she will need to sleep with four to five men a day to make enough money to bring back to her family. If she asks the man to use a condom, the price goes down so most girls don’t use condoms.
Many young girls don’t know how or lack the power to protect themselves from HIV or pregnancy and soon find they are pregnant or HIV positive. Unsafe abortion is very common in Kibera because young girls can’t afford the cost of a safe procedure in the hospital and the procedure is only legal when it is necessary to save a women’s life. It must take place in a hospital, with three medical practitioners certifying that the procedure is necessary.
When asked how to reduce these risks, one interviewee mentioned “If you give girls in our community sexual and reproductive health information, this will make a big impact. Most do not know anything about family planning and they don’t know where to access quality and safe services. It’s also important to address gender inequality at the same time. For example, a girl can’t say no to a guy if he doesn’t want to use a condom. Let’s say Peter is my boyfriend. If he wants to have sex with me without a condom, I can’t say no. Period.”
The Girls Empowerment Project is addressing the lack of information on reproductive health during their regular weekend gatherings. To achieve this, the organization has partnered with Marie Stopes Kenya to provide a space and overall support for the project. Each Saturday and Sunday, 40 girls ranging from ages 12 to 26 meet to learn about reproductive health, offer and receive peer support, do handcrafts, sew and sell clothes and perform skits in the community about issues relevant to the thousands who attend the performances.
While life is hard, the Girls Empowerment Project continues to be successful at their mission of empowering young girls and is seeing positive results. One member of their organization received a scholarship to study in Canada. She still plays a role in the organization from afar, financially supporting three girls with their school fees. The two young ladies I interviewed dream of going to university and believe they will find a way through their continued involvement with the organization.