For Esther Kimani (left) and Jedidah Maina, feminism started early. As youth advocates, they have been boldly fighting for women’s and girls’ sexual and reproductive health and rights in Kenya since they were teenagers. Esther works with the Young Women’s Leadership Institute in Nairobi, helping young women like her become leaders, not just in a political context, but in their personal lives. Jedidah runs a program called “Our Bodies, Our Choices” at the Trust for Indigenous Culture and Health (TICAH) that provides a space for women and girls to speak openly about their bodies, sexuality, and reproductive health.

Esther and Jedidah recently sat down with IWHC to discuss their work and how they are effecting change in local communities and fostering a new generation of activists.

What inspired you to become an advocate?

Esther: For me it started when I was in high school. I used to see things that I knew were wrong. Girls would be pregnant and people in school would gossip about them; it would be the talk of the town. At the time, I was Chair of the Young Catholics Association, but Catholics don’t really speak about contraceptives. So I started questioning the doctrine. Shouldn’t we be talking about family planning if young people are having unprotected sex? I then became a peer educator, going to schools to talk about contraceptives and condoms. But that didn’t mean I left my church. For me the mission was making sure that young people didn’t end up in places they didn’t want to be. I’d rather prevent something than cure it.

In 2007 I moved to Nairobi and became an intern for the Young Women’s Leadership Institute. I came up with an initiative where we used football to empower the girls. It all boils down to a girl understanding she has the power within her to change her status, the power to act, and that she has a support system. Understanding these concepts allows young people to get away from violence, and to take control over their lives and their sexuality.

Jedidah: I’ve always been interested in women’s rights. When I was at Nairobi University, I helped to create spaces for students to discuss sexuality and reproductive health issues. We ran “Reproductive Health Weeks,” where health providers would come and give talks and provide care. After I finished school, I joined WILDAF (Women in Law and Development in Africa). Its work then was championing the Sexual Offenses Act. We did a lot of work sensitizing people around the country to the bill and what it meant. It was a very progressive law.

How would you describe the current state of reproductive health for women and girls in Kenya? How easy is it for them to access services like abortion?

Jedidah: It’s still very challenging for women to access safe abortion in Kenya. Even though our current constitution was passed in 2010 and has more allowances, women still aren’t able to access the services. There is the issue of stigma. Most women do not speak about sex, as it is highly shrouded in silence. So there is a lot of misinformation. Most of the information girls have about what is safe is wrong.

And most of the information they have about our law is wrong. For example, girls think abortion is illegal on more grounds than it is. Or they think safe abortion is way too expensive, beyond their means. Sometimes they’re right, the few providers that offer abortion often extort women, charging very high fees.

Esther: The other thing with reproductive health services is the general attitude when it comes to abortion and who determines what is right. Patriarchy and religious fundamentalism really hinder access to the services. Even those women who have the right information, they are held back because they’re Christian or because they’re Muslim. They end up getting abortions in hidden ways, which puts their lives in danger.

It’s the same thing with family planning and contraceptives. And also the lack of youth-friendly services within those spaces. If young people seek out family planning services at health centers, they’re asked tough questions. And when that happens of course they won’t go back to those clinics. They will tell their friends about their experience, and their friends will tell their friends.

Are you optimistic about changes in Kenya with respect to gender equality and sexual and reproductive health?

Esther: I am optimistic that gender equality will be achieved in the long run. In Kenya, we have a very good constitution—it explicitly talks about gender and human rights. But it’s not fully implemented. Sexual rights is going to be a long process and a tough journey. But we’re hoping to get there. Now we have a bill in parliament on reproductive health care that hopefully will be passed. Once it’s adopted we’re going to see some progress on this.

Jedidah: In our country right now there is goodwill for women’s rights and reproductive health. And women’s access to political participation and economic empowerment is improving. Our government initiated some activities and programs that really speak to these issues. For example, there’s a provision for women to make up at least 30 percent in government and leadership positions. So this is good. But on sexual rights, we’re still far off.

Can you identify one change that you think would have the most impact on your work?

Jedidah: The one thing I’d like to see change in my work is to include economic empowerment for the women and girls we work with. Most of my work has been on sexual and reproductive health, and we haven’t seen ourselves as experts on economic empowerment. But I’ve realized it’s intertwined. For a woman to be able to exercise her reproductive health, she needs to be economically empowered. If she’s relying on a man, she’s not able to make her own decisions and will not realize her rights.

Esther: For me, I think we’ve neglected young girls between the ages of 10 and 14, and that’s where we need to start our prevention work and focus our programs. We see the trend now with HIV in Africa; the people that are getting infected are adolescent girls. And why is that? Because our programs are really not including them. We focus on teenagers or young people 18 and above, not realizing that younger girls and boys are in a precarious position. We need to put resources into this age group to prevent teenage pregnancy and HIV, and to help young girls understand their rights. They need to understand they are growing up and things will happen to their bodies. They need to learn how to manage these changes.

Every day girls are dying in Kenya. We cannot keep quiet any more, we have to take this head-on and save the lives of young women.