I’m not a victim, I’m a voice – Championing women and girls’ rights in Kenya during COVID-19

by Noah Wekesa

Meet Talaso Gababa, a #NoMoreViolence Champion from Kenya:

“I live with my brother, sister, and father in a small rural community in northern Kenya called Gabra. With COVID-19, everyone is at home together. I help my brother and sister with their education costs because I do not want my sister to face what I faced. You see, I do not want anyone to go through what I went through.

I was cut when I was six – much younger than usual. It was the most painful experience. After having the cut, I knew life would be tougher because I was exposed to things like early marriage. I wanted to avoid that at all costs. I cried day and night and refused breakfast and lunch so that my father would take me to school.

You see, in my pastoralist community, girls are not supposed to go to school. If they do, many fathers do not want to sponsor them beyond primary education. Luckily, I went to high school through the Kenyatta Scholarship Foundation.”

What work do you do with Amref Heath Africa?

“I’m involved with the ‘Koota Injena’ project, which translates to ‘Come Let’s Talk’. We enable dialogues to foster understanding about the harmful cultural practices of FGM, forced child marriage, and battering, as well as the importance of women in leadership positions.

We work with girls and mothers, enabling them to talk to one another through the generations. We also focus our efforts on clan elders and other traditional and spiritual leaders. This helps communities move forward. Nowadays going to school is more of a right – that is what we are working for.

We do face challenges though. The community looks at the work I do as setting a bad example, and some fear that we may negatively influence their daughter. I do not mind. I know they will understand what I am doing someday”.

How has COVID-19 affected your area, especially in terms of GBV?

“COVID-19 has resulted in the closure of schools for three months now. And when the schools close here, our girls are at risk. We’re facing a really tough time when it comes to protecting girls’ rights as they are exposed to early marriages, some as young as 11 and 12, or FGM.

FGM is on the rise right now as girls are taken to the outskirts of the villages to get cut where they cannot be traced. Some girls say that it is better to stay in school with COVID-19 than being at home and facing violence, including rape.

COVID-19 also worsens economic problems. My community can no longer take their livestock to market in Nairobi to sell. Because you are supposed to stay inside, you cannot go looking for food outside. Families are struggling, women lack things like menstrual hygiene kits, and people are being held back because of COVID-19”.

How has COVID-19 affected you and you work with women and girls?

“Because of social distancing measures, we cannot gather, which means my most effective measure – calling villagers together to discuss the prevention of harmful cultural practices like FGM – cannot take place. I also cannot visit the villages where these practices take place and help.

We are now trying to put measures in place with the local administration, the chief, and the police to strengthen their ability to calm the spread of violence. I’m also arranging special travel permissions to go back into the field

When I do, I will not be calling groups together but doing a few door-to-door visits taking all precautionary measures. I just want to remind the women and girls that I am still there with them. I want to encourage them to realise their potential, to become the women of their dreams”.

What message do you want to share with women and girls facing GBV?

“I have a personal quote, ‘I am not a victim, I am a voice’. I cannot be laid down by the cut. Yes, the cut made me miss many things in life. For example, in high school I could not tell people, I was ashamed. But I have decided to come out stronger and triumph over my situation to achieve my dreams.

When women tell me ‘we are useless’ or ‘we are not valued’, I tell them not to be defined by their current situation. If you are willing to get out of a harmful situation or a poisonous marriage that always leads to the battery, then you can triumph. Every girl has a purpose in life, every girl was born with potential, and every girl needs the opportunity to fulfill her potential.

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