The challenges facing girls in Kenya, especially in southwestern Kenya, are daunting. The region, formerly known as Nyanza province, has the worst statistics in Kenya with respect to teen pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections including HIV infections amongst girls, maternal mortality, and unsafe abortions. Thankfully, organizations like the Kisumu Medical and Education Trust (KMET), located in Kisumu county, are helping girls overcome these grim figures.
I recently visited KMET during a trip to Kenya with my IWHC colleagues Frederica Stines and Françoise Girard. We saw firsthand how KMET reaches young women and adolescent girls through its youth-friendly health clinic and programs that provide vocational training, mentoring, and “Know Your Rights” education.
During our visit, we met with students and graduates of KMET’s Sisterhood for Change (SFC), a 6-9 month subsidized vocational education program for disadvantaged girls and young women ages 10-24. SFC infuses job training with empowerment messages and sexual and reproductive rights information. Many of the girls enrolled in SFC had to drop out of school because they were forced into early marriage, became pregnant outside of marriage, or simply could not afford the school fees, books, and required uniform. SFC offers an alternative to these young women who are eager to take control of their lives.
Participants choose training in tailoring, hairdressing, or cooking/catering. Graduates continue their education with three-month internships at local businesses, and are encouraged to stay involved in the program as mentors and outreach workers to recruit new participants.
Throughout the training, KMET gives the girls the psychosocial support, mentoring, and health and rights education they need to succeed. It may seem unusual to combine vocational training with sexual and reproductive health information and services. Yet, this is exactly what empowers these girls to feel confident and make healthy and informed decisions that will allow them to thrive with their newfound skills.
One SFC graduate we met, Phenny, started her own business sewing school uniforms and crocheting handbags and mats from recycled materials. She also took classes through KMET on managing her business budgeting. “Before KMET, I was sitting at home, waiting for others to pay for me,” Phenny told us. “Now I’m self-reliant, and pay for my own rent and my food.” Phenny, who is disabled, is also now part of a para-volleyball team that competes all over Kenya.
We met Bridget, another SFC participant at her Urembo Kinyozi salon, just on the outskirts of Kisumu. When she enrolled at SFC, she had been “at home idling,” after having been forced to drop out of secondary school when her family could not afford the school fees. Following graduation, Bridget was given a three-month internship at a local beauty parlor, which then hired her. She worked there for two years, honing her techniques and saving money. She opened Urembo Kinyozi five years ago with financial help from KMET. Bridget enjoys mentoring KMET’s newest students and has taken some in as interns—one even went on to open her own salon. Bridget is currently taking business management classes at a local university; she plans to open a chain of salons in the next five years.
Finally, we met Violet, who chose cooking and catering as her career focus. “I didn’t like being a housewife,” she says. “When you don’t work, you just beg for money all the time.” Violet took six months of catering and cooking classes at KMET and has been working as a chef at the Alcazar Hotel for a year. The manager at the hotel told us that he gives preference to KMET graduates when hiring, citing their skills. When asked whether she hands over her salary to her husband, Violet exclaimed: “My salary is mine!” She uses her earnings to pay for food and clothes for her children, but also reinvests it in a small side-business selling fruit salads and juices to her neighbors. Owning her own restaurant would be “a dream.”
Sisterhood for Change also benefits the broader community. For example, participants who choose tailoring learn to make reusable sanitary pads, which KMET then distributes to girls who cannot afford to buy disposable pads. This helps ensure that girls do not miss school during their periods or resort to using materials like newspaper, pieces of old rugs, discarded mattress material, or even cow dung to absorb menstrual flow.