SOS (Save Our Sisters)
Yesterday I had one of the best experiences of my trip. Three of our group had gone out to document this “clinic” I mentioned previously, where children were being seen with the babies they had given birth to. Dirty, chaotic, dark. Their pregnancies represent a nightmarish problem that has been brought to our attention this trip. We knew that the high school drop out rates of girls was terribly high, with girls often having to prostitute themselves to pay their school fees or get food. We’ve spent two years fundraising for a girls’ dorm that will keep 160 girls safe and able to study and complete school. But we had not been aware that girls in primary school (grades 1-8) were also getting pregnant at an alarming rate. Poverty and lack of education fuel acts of desperation that are simply beyond our imagining. We wanted to understand more about this situation and the role parents were playing in it. Hence the visit to the “clinic.” Our team of three came back so shaken they couldn’t keep the tears back. They were speechless for the rest of the night. To see such injustice, such hopelessness (they described the stone faces of the young girls), and such dire despair!
We talked about ways we could turn our outrage and sorrow for these girls into positive action. We put out our feelers to see if there were some strong high school girls, advocates of education, that would be willing to address this forbidden secret. Would they be willing to speak out and work with us in forming a girls’ advocacy group that would address this problem and start an educational program with parents and girls on the primary level? We hoped to find four, maybe five girls that would help spearhead this. After all, it was a sensitive topic and in a culture like this, our outspoken ways can be threatening. We knew we needed to proceed with extreme caution and cultural awareness. Grace, a well-loved teacher, and rare female role model, had agreed to join with us in this effort.
A 17 year-old Muslim girl, Mariam Mwakula, bright as can be, with an interest in human rights, said she’d try to recruit girls. The first meeting was held yesterday in our secondary school library. Sixteen girls filed in! Beautiful girls, all from very poor homes, at least half of them Muslim, coming to share their stories and insights, telling us how and why they had come to value education above all else. It was one of the most touching experiences I’ve ever had. To look over their bright young faces, all of them leaning forward earnestly, eyes wide! To hear their stories of young girls selling themselves for 100 shillings ($1.15) so they could buy sanitary pads, or take dinner home for their families! To see their excitement when they realized that they could be part of brainstorming a solution to such a haunting nightmare! They came alive with the possibilities. (I could write on and on about this!)
When we finished I said we had to choose a name for ourselves; that even though we would be leaving soon, we would we cheering for them from across the world, and that we would want to know when they met and how they laid out their plan of action. They loved the idea of choosing a name for their group. After some debate, they came up with SOS: Save our Sisters. It couldn’t have been more perfect. Part of my heart will be left here with them. They are the perfect antidote to the despair seen in the faces of those child-mothers.
The way forward is not simple. The problem is so complex and so deeply rooted in ignorance and poverty and culture. It starts with illiterate mothers that don’t realize their daughters can get pregnant once they begin their menses. Fathers who are desperate for cash add fuel to the fire, as do the men and boys who dehumanize these girls and “treat them like dogs,” as one girl said.
But we made a step. Haba na haba – little by little, they say in Swahili. Education is the light of the world. It is a joy to see that light shine.