Benazir Mohamed hails from Garissa County where she studied in primary school. She is currently a student at Mount Kenya University. As a young girl from a patriarchal society, she has interacted one on one with the challenges that women face. ‘Most women in my community are not outspoken because of the culture and belief of the people; that women should not participate in decision making and community affairs. Many women face gender based violence with female Genital Mutilation being the most rampant. Young girls don’t have mentors to guide them through various life challenges. Many girls are also disadvantaged because boys are given priority to go to school,’ she narrates.
Despite the presence of many organizations to provide school fees for the girls, it is very hard for them to come in on personal issues in areas such as mentorship. Female genital mutilation and early child marriage are one of the most common forms of violence against women. 1 in 4 Kenyan girls is married off before attaining the age of 18 and 1 in 20 before their 15th birthday.
‘These subjects are hard to talk about but with time, I am learning to use my story as a tool to inspire other girls in my community. I went through the traditional practice which is often believed to be a rite of passage to womanhood. When I was in high school, I was afraid of admitting that I was a victim of FGM, a topic that often came about when we read one of the set books called ‘The River Between’ by Professor Ngugi Wa Thiong’o. One of the female characters, Muthoni, was circumcised,’ she reflects. Despite this, Benazir is glad that she has had the opportunity to go to good schools and her education has not been compromised because she is a girl. She says that her mother is very supportive about what she does.
What most people don’t know is that Female Genital Mutilation occurs in various forms. There is one in which the clitoris of a woman is chopped off and her birth canal is completely sown and there is another in which it is chopped off but a small opening is left. According to culture this prevents a woman from engaging in sexual immorality with the experience often being very painful. All this is done without the use of anaesthesia. This makes it difficult for women to give birth with the birth canal often tearing when the baby is due. At times, the thread used to sow is cut at child birth and then sown again after the woman gives birth to create space for the baby to pass through, a torturous and terrifying process. Many women undergo the tradition facing so much pain in silence for the rest of their lives.
In 2015, she started a community based organization called Silver Lining. She was at home for the long holiday and wanted to find a job but couldn’t get one. She decided to take a tailoring course instead. One day, decided to visit North Eastern Province Girls to give a motivational talk to the students. On getting there, she realised that many of the girls had dropped out from the school because many teachers left the area after the attack on Garissa University.
Eventually, she joined the school as an Agriculture teacher. This is when she realised that many of the girls just wanted someone to talk to, someone to give them hope and act as a bridge to the older teachers. She started a club at the school called ‘Game changers Club,’ where many girls started opening up and got mentorship from her and other teachers in the school.
Through the club, she saw many girls transitioning from shy girls into confident people. When she met them, they would even cover their mouths as they spoke in Somali because of the belief that women are not supposed to speak out. Through this, she heard many girls narrate stories of how they had been forced into early marriage and how they escaped. These girls needed a nest, a safe space to study and grow into wholesome individuals. After some time, many youth came in to volunteer for her cause. This saw them visit many schools to provide mentorship. Eventually, they registered Silver Lining that would cater for both boys and girls.
Benazir has also run various campaigns including Black Is Rare. In the Somali community, majority of the women have fair skin so those who have a darker complexion often feel ugly. A friend of hers even told her how her father would favour her lighter skinned sisters over her because she was dark. This saw them posting photos on social media to create awareness on the effects of bleaching/ lightening skin. This encouraged more girls to love their complexion while other didn’t see the point of the campaign because they thought that light skinned girls don’t understand the challenges that dark skinned girls go through.
‘As young people, we need to be involved in governance. We are the ones who understand the challenges we face and we must find ways of solving them without hurting others. We ought to ensure that our leaders are accountable and keep the promises they make to their constituents;’ she describes.
Silver lining has been involved various activities. For example, they had a peace dialogue where they addressed matters such as ways of countering violent extremism. Many youth are lured into terror groups due to unemployment and lack of a proper education. This brought in about 300 young people who suggested ways of empowering them. They also had a women dialogue in partnership with other women led organisations that brought women who were vying for leadership positions in Wajir and Garissa so that they could pass their agenda and encourage people to vote for more women.
To commemorate the campaign on 16 days of activism this year, they came up with a petition that would call out to leaders to end gender based violence within the education system. GBV not only occurs at home but also in school where children are defiled by teachers and bullied by their colleagues. They want the government to come up with a bill that will put measures to stop this.
They also had different girls come together so that they could listen to women in the community who are high achievers. This included women working with UNICEF and staff from Garissa University among others. Ending Gender based Violence is a collective activity. In 2015, they also commemorated it by bringing girls together to colour drawings of different images including birds. They would the use the papers to cover their faces after writing what experiences they had gone through in the form of gender based violence. The photographs were taken and shared online. This was to encourage more women to speak out when they went through any form of violence.
Like any other organization, Silver Lining faces its own challenges. One of them is the fact that some people don’t believe in their course especially when it comes to fighting for the rights of women and girls. Sometimes they are discouraged when they are told that they won’t find husbands because they are feminist. However, feminism does not only involve fighting for women’s rights, it is more about fighting for the right of every underprivileged person.
As a youth led initiative, they also lack ways of getting in touch with the people because there are other organisations doing similar work and they are well known. Many times, they lack funds to run their activities. However, they sometimes sacrifice their own money so that they can scale up the work they do for example by paying school fees.
Silver Lining has four major pillars that guide them in their work with the first one focusing on children. They would like to see more support for growing children’s talents. For example, there was a child who was part of the Presidential Awards Scheme. He wanted to film the work he does as part of the award process but he did not have a camera to do this. They partnered with a company that could film his work and he was therefore able to do his presentation at Statehouse Nairobi.
They also focus on education which involves ensuring that every person is given a chance to go to school. They advocated for the reopening of the Garissa University which had been shut down after the attack on the school in 2015. One of the ways they do this is to teach children and youth the right religion which is not linked to radicalism. This topples up with the other activities mentioned above. Peace programmes are also important in making youth aware that Islam is not about violence. They try to involve religious leaders who speak to youth. Their last thematic area gives a priority to women, which is why they organised the women representative debates as mentioned above.
Benazir has continued to achieve great milestones in her advocacy work. She has won the 2018 World Bank Blog For Development Competition. The theme this year focused on gender based violence and how to end it. Benazir clearly explained what she is doing for her community and how she wants to scale it up. Further, she will have the chance to travel to Washington D.C. ; an opportunity for her to network with stakeholders in her area. This will happen during the 2018 World Bank Spring Meetings.
It is no doubt that we still have a long way to go in terms of empowering African youth. However, it is initiatives such as these that will save the future of our children. Initiatives that are deep rooted in service drawn out of necessity. This is a call to action to every individual and every stakeholder, to come out and support youth led programmes that are tackling major problems. The struggle continues.