This Human Rights Day I’m celebrating my sister’s commitment to lifting up the lives of girls and giving them a chance at realizing their potential.
I think of my sister Vicky as a warrior in the fight for human rights, and on December 10, I’m celebrating her efforts, and those made by thousands like her, to make the world a better, fairer, and more just place.
I have nine siblings, and one of the best things about growing up in a large family is that you can have many friends who’re related to you. The intensities of the relationships between siblings ebb and flow and the politics, gossip, and scandals make for interesting or heartbreaking seasons. My older sister Victoria is one of my best friends. We weren’t close when I was growing up – she seemed too close to mum, telling on everyone all the time.
It’s because of my strong-willed, no-nonsense, loving sister Vicky that I’ve managed to get through this year.
In March, as Kenya was locking down because of Covid-19 and schools were closed, Vicky and I spoke daily on the phone – lengthy analyses of our family, work, religion, politics, and TV shows. I hadn’t seen her in over a year because, as a teacher and guidance counselor in a small girls’ boarding school, her schedule is hectic. In those days, she was very worried about the time her students would spend at home during the pandemic. Vicky is very passionate about her students; she knows them by name, talent, and personality. I counted my blessings: my son was having a great time at home playing outside, on his phone, studying only when I called him by his full three names. Vicky worried that her students would face violence at home and maybe become pregnant, turning them into statistics, even headlines, making it hard for them to return to school when it reopened, whenever that would be. She kept in touch with the girls, sometimes calling their parents to check in. She negotiated with parents to make sure they didn’t pile housework on their daughters – giving them no space to rest or be children.
I understood her deep concerns. In 2018, I traveled with colleagues to Migori, western Kenya, close to my mother’s village. We were producing a film about the exclusion of pregnant teenagers from schools for a Human Rights Watch report, No Girl Left Behind. I interviewed pregnant girls and adolescent mums for the film, seeing myself in their stories. I had my son in my first year of college. If I had gotten pregnant a couple of years earlier, in secondary school, I might have never gone back to school – I’ve nine siblings; we competed for limited resources. Pregnancy robs girls of a future with more choices. I don’t like to imagine how life could have been different for me if I were forced to drop out.
Although in theory the Kenya government encourages pregnant girls and teen mums to complete their education, in practice many schools, families, and communities lack support to ensure girls can continue their education during or after pregnancy. Many, if not most, teen pregnancies are due to sexual violence or coercion, even within families, but justice is a dream to most of these girls: sexual violence is still a taboo matter “best solved at home” – secretly, with no consideration or support for the girls and their future.
The way Vicky keeps pushing for these girls inspires me. When they have no one else, they have her. At the beginning of each school term, after the holidays, she counsels girls who confide in her about a pregnancy, about the sexual violence they face, about the unsafe abortions they have had. She convenes meetings with parents to find ways to support the girls’ education during their pregnancy and motherhood. She calms disappointed parents and tracks down those who try to abandon their daughters because of pregnancies. Vicky knew that this extended period at home would be devastating for girls. We talked a lot about this when she visited me in September.
Last August, the Kenyan media reported on the high numbers of teens and girls – some as young as 10 – who became pregnant in the first half of the year, and the government announced that it would track down and register all pregnant girls so they could go back to school. But will the government follow through with action?
Vicky had to cut short her visit and go back to school in October when the government announced that some classes would resume. She got the text from her school one morning when we were sipping coffee in bed, trying to get up. We had a bad day. I sulked, refusing to speak with her as if it was her fault. I helped her pack her bags in silence. She prattled on about how nice the visit had been, her colleagues, and other mundane topics. She kept receiving texts from her students, some excited to return to school, some asking her to call back urgently.
I listened in, impressed, as she comforted and encouraged her students. Some couldn’t go back to school because of the economic hardships caused by the pandemic. Some couldn’t return because they were pregnant and worried about being in a new environment during the pandemic.
I hoped that this pandemic had finally awakened the Kenya government to the need to protect these girls’ right to education, just as fiercely as Vicky does every day.
On December 10, let’s celebrate the millions of people around the world – like Vicky – who make a difference, who work so hard to build a world where everyone’s rights are respected. Vicky and I promised each other that next year, we’ll visit each other more; 2020 has shown just how things can change in a moment.