Please note that this blog post contains stories about sexual assault.
Inequality is in the infrastructure of Nairobi, Kenya. If you drive along one of the city’s highways, you ride a line that divides lavish gated neighborhoods bound by green grass and Toyotas — the wealthy — from one-room homes where families of eight sleep on mud floors — the “slums” of Kibera.
And inside of Kibera, inequality is just as apparent. But the division isn’t geographical. Here, the dividing line is your sex. If you’re born a girl, life can be almost too much to bear.
The experiences of girls and women in Kibera — the largest urban “slum” in Nairobi — are equally tragic, maddening and galvanizing. But where inequality runs deep, so do strength and tenacity.
Meet Jaqueline, Aisha, Faith, Mary, Maureen, Juliette, Emmariza and Asha, here to tell you the stories of why they’ll never stop fighting for their rights — and why they aren’t leaving Kibera until things change for girls.
“We have to fight from house to house, girl to girl.”
It’s a Saturday afternoon. Jaqueline is holding her second training session of the day. It’s a kind of #MeToo movement for girls.
“Do you know that your body is your own? It is not a commodity or a thing that men can use when and how it suits them,” Jacqueline tells her class. Only one of the students nods. The others look down at the floor. They’re silent, but the attendance speaks volumes.
In just one week, Jaqueline went from six students to more than 50 girls and young women in her training sessions. They have themes including: “Rape is never your fault,” “Yes, you can say no to men,” and “Why do you get periods?”
“There is no sex education in school or at home,” Jaqueline says. “That’s why I always start by drawing a uterus and fallopian tubes on the board. Sometimes the girls are 17 years old when they start with me. Yet they do not know what menstruation is or why they get it.
“These are very basic norms that we must change, and we have to fight from house to house, girl to girl. All girls need to grow up with the awareness that they are worth as much as boys and men and that they alone have power over their bodies. That’s how we create change.”
“I have to get an education.”
Four men walked the winding paths of Kibera on their way to the mosque. They heard a tiny sound coming from the sewer, between food waste and mud. It was the sound of a newborn baby, her small body wrapped in cloth and newspaper.
It was Aisha.
Six months later, she was given to a family who, according to Aisha, took her in only to “win points from God.”
Her childhood was filled with violence and abuse from her stepfather. She was married off three times to different men. By the third time, Aisha was just 15 years old, and became the third wife of a man who was 72.
Aisha managed to escape and took refuge on the streets of Kibera. Now 22, she couch surfs most nights, and everything she owns is in her backpack.
Where she’s headed isn’t outside of Kibera. Her journey is toward an education.
“I have to get an education so I do not end up like my adoptive mother,” Aisha says. “She is trapped in an extremely violent marriage because she does not have an education and the opportunity to earn her own money.”
A life that was saved from the gutter, Aisha knows she isn’t meant to ever give up.
“I have proven that you can follow your passion, and at the same time, survive.”
Calculations turn into dancing elephants, graphs into wild jungles and letters into a whole universe of their own. This is what Faith says her primary school textbooks looked like. As soon as her pencil hit paper, she simply couldn’t help but draw.
But she never showed the drawings to anyone. In fact, she was a little embarrassed.
“I did not dare tell anyone that I wanted to become an artist,” she says.
Faith was 15 when one of her teachers discovered her talent. But instead of scolding Faith like the other teachers did, she encouraged her to keep drawing and improve her skills.
Faith is now 28 and a full-time artist. She’s very conscious of setting a good example for girls and being an inspiration in Kibera.
“It has taken a long time to gain respect,” she says. “Today, I can make a living from painting and show that I have proven that you can follow your passion, and at the same time, survive. I teach children that creativity and passion are abilities to be proud of. There is no reason to be ashamed.”
“I want to be allowed to choose what I wear and who I love.”
When Mary was 14, her mother was called into her school to speak with the principal. The other students were accusing Mary of being gay.
This is a serious accusation in Kenya. Homosexuality is banned. And its punishable by imprisonment.
The truth was that Mary realized she was attracted to girls, not boys, around the same time she was accused by her classmates. But she denied everything. She had never met a gay person, and says she wasn’t sure if her sexuality was a disease — and if so, whether or not she could be cured.
For years, Mary hid her sexual orientation. She pretended to have a boyfriend when she was 18, flooding her social media with his photos. She wanted people to believe she was an “ordinary girl.”
Mary is now 23 years old. She still lives in Kibera, but has lost touch with her family. They don’t know about her sexuality.
“I have spent a lot of time convincing myself that there is something wrong with me,” she says. “It is not something I have chosen myself. But it’s hard to hold on to the fact that I’m worth as much as other people when everyone [in Kibera] says it’s unnatural to be gay. But I want to be allowed to choose what I wear and who I love.”
Mary is a fervent activist and feminist who fights to secure girls’ and women’s rights in Kibera.
“We must reach a point where everyone stands and respects that human rights are everyone’s rights,” she says. “Even if you are a girl, or gay.”
Mary’s name has been changed to protect her identity.
“I dream of making Kibera a safe place for all girls and women.”
When her mother fell ill, Maureen was forced to drop out of school at just 14 years old.
“I was the eldest, so it was my responsibility to make sure we could survive and raise money for medicine for my mother,” Maureen says.
So, Maureen moved in with a wealthy family and became their housekeeper. For the first time in her life, she had her own bed to sleep in. But the 44-year-old uncle of the family didn’t let Maureen sleep alone.
He told her it was part of her job. By the time she was 15, she became pregnant. And when the mother of the family discovered the pregnancy, Maureen was thrown out of the house.
Her life descended into the darkness of hunger, violence and abuse.
“You become numb when you are always thinking about how to survive,” she says.
But Maureen found her way out of the darkness. Together, with a group of other women, she formed the Unicorn Resistance, an organization helping girls and young women who have been abused.
“I help [girls] report their rapists to the police and get their cases to court,” she says. “I dream of making Kibera a safe place for all girls and women. I dream of creating a safe place so that no girls are forced to live with violence.”
“If you make your own money … You are free.”
When her family falls asleep, Juliette starts working. She buys sacks of peanuts in the afternoon on her way home from school, and in the glow of an oil lamp, sorts them carefully throughout the night. She washes and dries them, adds salt and places them over the fireplace to roast. And the next morning, she sets off to sell them.
She makes a profit of 150 kroner ($17), a week — enough to pay for her school fees and save up for university.
“When you are a girl of 18 to 20 years, people start teasing you,” Juliette says. “‘Why have you not been married?’ they ask. ‘You’ll end up old and ugly, and then no one wants you.’”
Her neighbors mock her independence. But she knows her path is right for her, and she wants to inspire other girls in Kibera to follow it.
In addition to her peanut business, Juliette has set up her own organization for training girls and young women on entrepreneurship.
“If you make your own money, it can never go completely wrong,” she says. “Then you can always look after yourself, you are not dependent on a man who can treat you as he wants. You are free.”
“For the first time in my life, I have faith in myself.”
Emmariza first became pregnant when she was 15. Her life changed in one day — from a student to working as a maid so that she could make money and take care of her child.
And then as a single mother at 17, she met a man who promised to marry her. But there was no wedding. Instead, he ran away when he discovered she was pregnant with his child.
Emmariza’s brother threw her and her daughter out of the house with news of her second pregnancy.
“I was standing on the street in the middle of the night with a baby in my stomach and a child in my hand,” Emmariza says. “We had nowhere to go. I cannot really bear to think about it. We were all alone in the world.”
But Emmariza turned things around. With a loan of 150 kroner ($17), she started her own business, selling oatmeal door to door. Within a few years, she made enough money to open her own stand, selling soup, cakes and bread.
Watching their mother bring her dreams to life, her children have big dreams of their own to become aircraft mechanics or doctors. They are able to go to school, because Emmariza can now afford to pay for it.
“For the first time in my life, I have faith in myself,” she says.
“I want to stay right here and help create change.”
Asha was brought up to believe she is inferior. She was told that girls should not make any noise. They should not stand out. And they should not raise their voices in front of men.
But Asha does.
She’s studying at university and makes money as a writer. She’s involved in local politics, and is anything but what she was brought up to be.
“Growing up in Kibera is like living inside of a bubble,” she says. “We experience violence every single day from the time we are very young. For many people, their whole life is a struggle to survive and often you do not know where the next meal is to come from. I was 16 years old before I discovered that this is not how the rest of the world looks like. That there is another life.”
Asha has no intention of leaving Kibera. She says when you come from Kibera, you have to lie about where you’re from, or people won’t associate with you — or hire you. But Asha is proud of her roots.
“Try to Google us,” she says. “There are only pictures of rusty tin sheds, hungry children, rubbish and misery. If this is the story about where you live, then this is the one you end up staying with.”
The image of Kibera needs to change. And Asha is ready to take the lead.