‘Soft girls’ toughen up and make it to school


by Cynthia Vukets on August 10, 2009

Jackline wants to be a journalist. And Phoebe wants to be a lawyer. Just a year ago, they would have been too shy to dream up those ambitions, never mind admit to them.

The girls of Longo listen to a classmate perform

The girls of Longo listen to a classmate perform

But now these teenage girls and their classmates at Longo Primary School on the outskirts of Mombasa are able to stand at the front of the room, recite poetry, sing songs, dance and talk about their dreams, their hopes, their academic performance and . . . their periods!

Longo is one of 808 primary schools in Eastern Kenya to adopt a “Girls’ Forum.” The program is sponsored and organized by a group called EMACK – Education for Marginalized Children in Kenya – that’s funded by USAID and the Aga Khan Foundation. Girls’ Forum was designed when teachers and EMACK staff noticed how many girls were missing four or five days of school every month because they were too embarrassed to come to school during their periods. Many schools didn’t have girls’ toilets and most children didn’t have the hygiene products they needed.

So Girls Forum began with the simple idea of providing girls with sanitary towels so they could comfortably attend school during their period. It morphed into a weekly session where girls get together with teachers and community volunteers to talk about puberty and sexuality, women’s empowerment, self-confidence and academic performance. Once the forums got started, though, volunteers realized the girls were bursting with much heavier issues to discuss, such as sexual abuse at the hands of their teachers.


"Elected chairlady" of Longo Girls Forum Phoebe talks to the visitors

Phoebe, the "elected chairlady" of Longo Girls Forum, talks to the visitors

“We found out that for a loaf of bread, a village man or a schoolmate would get a girl into bed, and that’s not right,” the program head, Alex Alubisia explained to us at EMACK’s Mombasa offices.


Another big issue is girls’ performance as compared to boys. Margaret Katemba says in Coast Province, female role models have tended to be those girls “lucky” enough to marry rich tourists and escape to Italy. So Girls’ Forum leaders try to encourage the idea that girls have options and should stick in school to achieve their goals.

“It’s actually the grooming. It’s the cultural way of bringing up children,” remarks Amina Mwitu of Kenya’s Madrasa Resource Centre. “Hey! You’re a boy. You’re not supposed to cry so much. Or ‘hey! You’re a girl. You’re supposed to be soft.”

She says she even used to find it weird seeing male teacher trainers working in elementary schools, sitting cross-legged on the floor listening to children. Doing what has historically been seen as a women’s job.

“So I have been empowered myself!” she laughs, saying she has learned how important it is to have male teachers who are supportive of all children.

Girls are expected to defer to boys all the time, even if the boys are younger. That means female students consistently perform at a lower level than males. They’re nervous to ask questions if they don’t understand. They feel shy going to write on the board or answering out loud in front of boys.

The girls perform a dance about early forced marriage

The girls perform a dance about early forced marriage


When I meet the girls at Longo, I don’t believe they were ever shy or reluctant to answer questions in class. The girls are giggling, smiling brightly, standing at the front of the class to address foreign visitors and the EMACK staff. They have prepared dances, poems and “special claps” for us. They perform a song and dance about a young girl who is supposed to get married to an older man but decides to stay in school instead. Good story. I hope this generation of girls will really be able to make that choice.