Fozia Muhamud is a teacher at Seneiya Special School where she attends to children with hearing impairment. Prior to joining Seneiya Special School early this year, she was teaching in Maralal Primary school which is an integrated school that accommodates for both disabled and regular children.
It was in Maralal Primary where she was made aware of the “Always Keeping Girls In School” programme by P&G. Being in Samburu County, most girls hardly finished school because of early marriages, FGM and poverty. Fozia says that P&G is one of the few programmes in Samburu that has truly impacted the lives of the girls and given them hope.
Now that she is in an exclusive special school, Fozia has brought P&G on board and they have created a partnership to assist disabled girls with sanitary towels and education. She says that the disabled community is often left out in the reproductive health discussion whereas they need it just as much.
What is the difference between an integrated school and a special school?
Maralal primary school was integrated, meaning we had both able-bodied children and disabled children. The arrangement is such that all the children get to interact with each other in the same school compound even though the disabled children have separate classes. Seneiya is a purely special school that was established this year. There we only have disabled children with conditions such as deafness, cerebral palsy, autism and intellectual disabilities. In Seneiya primary we are only four teachers, so we share the workload amongst ourselves. I teach all subjects in grade three and social studies in class seven.
What challenges do the girls in Samburu county experience?
In Maralal primary, we had over 3,000 pupils in total, these children had come from diverse backgrounds. Some were from extremely poor families while others were from comfortable families. We had many cases of girls who had run away from their homes after the parents attempted to marry them off or subject them to Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).
Girls who are located elsewhere in the country are far more enlightened than the girls in Samburu. Here, girls have no access to information about the rest of the world, they are not exposed to phones, the internet or even television. The girls also lack support systems because most of their parents are oblivious of their needs mostly because of backward culture and traditions. The leaders have also failed in a huge way when it comes to supporting the girls.
Other girls are pushed into becoming parents to their younger siblings because the family has been broken by brewing alcohol which is common in some areas. These girls have nowhere to run to and no one to help them access basic necessities such as sanitary towels, panties or even food. In Maralal, the girls who had been rescued from such situations often kept to themselves and this really touched me, and I decided to create a club called “Girls for Girls”
What was the club about?
The club was about girls being their sisters keepers. There were girls who came from financially stable backgrounds and we had lengthy, engaging conversations with them about their fellow sisters who were struggling. With the headteacher’s blessing, the girls would bring donations of anything kind ranging from soap, clothes, pads and even money.
We would collect all the donations, keep them in a safe place and later distribute them to the most vulnerable girls. There was an NGO that has also come on board and they assisted where they could to make sure that the girls stayed in school and didn’t get exposed to early marriages or FGM. Though I left Maralal school, the club still goes on in the capable hands of a fellow teacher whom I left in charge.
How did you become a member of the “Always Keeping Girls In School” Programme?
After running the “Girls for Girls” club for a while, our headteacher called me and told me about the Bethel Network. He said that they had a programme that resembled the work we were doing with the club and suggested that I sign up. This was around three years ago. After signing up, I realized that Bethel’s partnership with P&G was geared towards keeping girls in school through empowering their minds and providing them with sanitary towels. I felt like this fit perfectly with my girls and we started the training process immediately.
The amazing thing about P&G is that, not only were they training the girls, but they were also teaching teachers to be better at communicating with the girls and helping them deal with the issues they might be experiencing. We were taken through basic life skills, interpersonal skills and more insight on puberty. The fact that I also had a counselling and psychology degree made it easier for me to understand the girls and offer them coping skills.
What was the immediate impact of the programme on the girls?
There was a significant change in their personalities. You could see that the girls seemed happier than before. Their confidence levels had gone up and they were finally getting comfortable to open up. The programme inspired a sense of sisterhood to the girls and they started to feel like they were part of a family as opposed to feeling like they were alone and forgotten.
Due to this togetherness, a peer mentorship programme was started where the girls talked about their issues themselves and shared life experiences. The club officials would later present the minutes to me and we would discuss on how to solves the challenges that had come up. P&G pushed the girls to be more confident and assertive of themselves. Girls were standing their ground and refusing to get married because they wanted to go to school. The fact that they could communicate freely is one of the most important things.
Did you notice any change in their academic performances?
The girls started to really excel after P&G came into the picture. They were more attentive in their studies and enjoyed being in school. P&G would offer the girls sanitary towels that would last them the entire year, and this meant that no girl was left behind because of missing class. They had no reason to be away from school and therefore this contributed positively towards improving their performance in class.
Did the “Always keeping girls in school” programme face any resistance from the community?
The biggest resistance came in the form of tradition. It was hard for us to convince the girls that they could politely go against their parents. The local people in Samburu believe a lot in curses. The girls were scared that by refusing to get into marriages or refusing to be circumcised, they could be cursed for the rest of their lives by their parents. Convincing the girls that no good tradition could condone their suffering, was an uphill task. They were ready to be obedient to their parents rather than be empowered.
In the three years that you were in Maralal Primary, approximately how many girls went through the programme?
P&G usually concentrate on the girls who are in class seven and eight because girls in that age are starting to get their periods. The problem with Samburu is that children start attending school later than usual so you could find 14-year-old in class four or even lower. I saw no harm in including girls from lower classes as long as they were within the age group. Sometimes I even recruited girls from class two. In total, approximately 2000 girls went through the programme.
When you moved to a special school, why was it important to you to bring Always Kenya on board?
I had seen the success we had achieved in Maralal primary and I wanted the disabled children to be in the program so I approached P&G through Bethel and luckily, they took us in under girls with special needs. After observing the deaf children in my class, I felt like an intervention from P&G was really needed because part of what they train is interpersonal relationships.
I noticed that disabled children lack information about how to handle boy – girl relationships. They tend to react more to their sexual urges than able-bodied children. More crucially, when children with intellectual disabilities get to adolescence they can engage in sexual activity while you are even in class because they don’t have knowledge that this is wrong. P&G will be instrumental when it comes to training these children and their caregivers; teaching them about reproductive health and the effects of sex when they are that young.
What is the main difference between the programme by Always Africa and other programmes that support the girl child in Samburu?
We have lots of programmes in Samburu, but I have seen none that is as impactful as the one by P&G. We need more programmes like keeping girls in school that are focused and well organized. It is counterproductive to have dozens of initiatives that have little or no impact on the girls or community. P&G has come up with a plan that not only provides girls with the necessities but also empowers their minds and supports them as they transition into assertive young women.
What is your message to Bethel Network and Always Africa?
I am very grateful to P&G for their dedication towards helping the girl child. They have supported us with pads and empowered the girls in a way that we wouldn’t have done ourselves. I remember last March when they last brought us sanitary towels, they also gave us buckets which I shared with my special school. We are humbled by their love and commitment. What they give us might appear small to them, but it means the world to us.
The only thing I would recommend is that they also set up a programme to offer diapers to children with special needs. They have no ability to control their bowels and without diapers, they soil themselves. If P&G would consider this, it would greatly benefit my students at Seneiya. Other than that, I wish them all the best and I hope we can continue working together for many years to come.
Brian Muchiri is a passionate writer who draws his inspiration from the experiences in his own life and of those around him. He is candid and he seeks to inspire society to be more pro active and vocal about the social issues that affect us. Brian is also actively involved in pushing for awareness and inclusion of people with disabilities through his foundation; Strong Spine.