Story and photos by Cynthia Vukets

In Kenya, it wasn’t long ago that girls couldn’t be counted on to talk about anything in school.

The prevailing opinion was that female students should be seen and not heard. Girls lagged far behind their male counterparts in school because they were unable to participate in class or ask questions.

But now, thanks to an international focus on the global education of girls — and some innovative local programs — girls are speaking up. And even talking about sex.

Pupil Mary Atieno performs a poem at Longo Primary School in Kwale District.

Before the start of “Girls’ Forum,” a program designed to increase girls’ self-esteem and academic success, six to eight students were becoming pregnant and dropping out every year from a small rural primary school in Eastern Kenya.

“We used to lose many girls,” explains Agatha Kimari, a teacher at Stephen Kanja Primary School in Kwale District near Kenya’s coast.

But in the last two years, only two girls have become pregnant and both are still in school. And Girls Forum has encouraged girls to take charge of their bodies and their minds and become bright, confident, successful young students.

The program was designed when teachers and staff from Education for Marginalized Children in Kenya (EMACK) noticed how many girls were missing four or five days of school every month because they were too embarrassed to come to school during menstruation. Many schools didn’t have girls’ toilets and most children didn’t have the hygiene products they needed.

Girls’ Forum began with the simple idea of providing girls with sanitary pads so they could comfortably attend school during their period. It morphed into a weekly session where girls got together with teachers and community volunteers to talk about puberty and sexuality, women’s empowerment, self-confidence and academic performance. Once the forums got started, however, volunteers realized the girls were bursting with much heavier issues to discuss, such as sexual abuse at the hands of their teachers.

“We found out that for a loaf of bread, a village man or a schoolmate would get a girl into bed, and that’s not right,” the program head, Alex Alubisia, explains to me at EMACK’s Mombasa offices.

Unicef estimated in 2007 that one-third of girls aged 12-19 in Coast province were involved in casual sex work. That adds up to about 10,000 to 15,000 girls.

Over half of the 2,000 to 3,000 children working full-time in the sex trade still attend school, the Unicef study found, but that leaves nearly half who have dropped out or are not attending classes regularly.

Jackline Nkatha, a Standard eight student at Kwale District's Longo Primary School, acts as emcee at a Girls' Forum meeting.

“Most of the communities in the Coast are very poor and girls can’t go to school on an empty stomach,” says Elizabeth Akinyi, the director of Solidarity with Women in Distress (Solwodi), a Mombasa-based organization that offers counseling and services for women and girls in the sex industry.

She says Solwodi has served about 3,000 underage girls since its inception in 1997. EMACK’s Margaret Katembo says in Coast Province, female role models have tended to be those girls “lucky” enough to marry rich tourists and escape to Italy or other countries abroad. Lack of discussion in school and at home about sexuality and choices has limited girls’ perception of their options.

“In schools where young people are talking to their teachers, where they’re discussing issues, they’re more likely to make better decisions because they’re more informed,” says Rosemary Muganda-Onyando, the director of Kenya’s Centre for the Study of Adolescence.

Another important focus of the EMACK program is girls’ performance as compared to boys.

In Kenya’s 2007 national exams, only 16 per cent of the top 100 places were claimed by girls. Girls performed better than boys in only two subjects last year – Christian Religious Education and English.

Standard eight girls from Longo Primary School in Kwale District perform a poem about rape.

While visiting Longo Primary school, also in Kwale District, Girls’ Forum chairlady Phoebe Muthoni tells me how Girls’ Forum sessions have helped students express themselves and increased girls’ confidence.

“We are not supposed to be shy,” says the young woman with dreams of becoming a lawyer.

Grade eight student Jackline Nkatha wants to be a journalist. The day’s emcee urges her fellow club members to concentrate on their studies.

“The ball, it is in our court and we need to work hard,” she says. “When we grow up, we’d like to be someone, somewhere, doing a job.”

Kimari says the biggest difference she has noticed at Stephen Kanja in the two years Girls’ Forum has existed has been the girls’ attitudes towards each other. Where there used to be “booing” and “backbiting,” she says, the girls now stick together and stand up for each other.

“There is a difference [in academic performance]. Not one I’m very proud of yet, but there is a difference,” she adds.

Attendance has improved since Girls’ Forum started at Longo, says teacher Pamela Wambogo. In the past year, the girls have been absent only 126 days while the boys have missed 268 days.

But the success of Girls’ Forum begs one question: what about the boys?

“The teachers are telling us, after the inception of Girls’ Forum, the boys now think they have been left behind,” says Katembo.

At Stephen Kanja, the answer to that dilemma so far is the creation of a “Students’ Council” where boys and girls meet to discuss empowerment and academic issues. The school has also started mixed study groups where the boys, who still perform better academically, are able to help the girls.

Kimari says the increased academic competition has created an atmosphere of respect and studiousness amongst the students. Girls are now completing their homework and insisting household chores be shared with their brothers.

“Now they can say no to what they don’t want and say yes to what they want,” says Ms Wambogo.

“These girls are shining.”