Groomed for Silence

Girls playing in Malaba, a cross-border community between Uganda and Kenya

Girls playing in Malaba, a cross-border community between Uganda and Kenya

Growing up in my hometown, Bungoma, I would hear stories of how sitting ‘badly’ earned one a hot coal or mwiko moto (a hot cooking stick) in your inner thighs, which was done swiftly and without one’s knowledge, to jolt you back to your sitting senses. It was not any different in my generation, but this time, we were pinched in our inner thighs. Mothers and older girls were expected to uphold such customs.

Culturally, girls were expected to conform to unwritten norms passed from generation to generation without any question. One would expect going to school would perhaps change this, but instead the norms were further reinforced, and our sexuality was shaped.

I remember walking without a petticoat on or with it hanging off meant that we (read: girls) were exposing ourselves or inviting rape. In school, when called to explain our conduct we were not supposed to look at the teacher directly in the eye; if we dared it meant we were defiant, especially so when it was to a male teacher.

Silence is what girls are taught. We have borne the brunt of cultural ideas and practices that perpetuate sexual and gender-based violence (GBV), which impede our ability to contribute to the growth of our family, community, and country.

Gender-based violence remains shrouded in a culture of silence, undermining the health, dignity and autonomy of its survivors. Women are not encouraged to bring forth their experiences with gender-based violence, for it would risk bringing shame to their husbands, or destroying the home that they’ve built. Women’s sexuality is likewise something that is supposed to be contained; unseen. If I go to purchase a sanitary towel, the shopkeeper will completely seal and hide it for me, so that I can avoid the shame of carrying it.

Throughout the world, there is lack of accountability and means to report sexual or gender-based violence, which reinforces a culture of silence. This culture of silence persists, even though survivors of GBV can suffer mental scars, stigmatization or real, physical sexual health consequences like unwanted pregnancies, STD’s, HIV, AIDS, or even death.

Violence Against Women is one of the most prevalent human rights violations in the world. 1 in 3 women worldwide will experience physical or sexual abuse in her lifetime. Around 120 million girls worldwide have experienced forced intercourse or other forced sexual acts at some point in their lives. At least 200 million women and girls alive today have undergone female genital mutilation. Women and girls account for 71 percent of human trafficking, and nearly three out of every four trafficked women and girls are trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation.

A young woman perusing her ‘Huru Kit’ containing reusable sanitary pads

A young woman perusing her ‘Huru Kit’ containing reusable sanitary pads

These are not just statistics; these are true lived realities on the ground. Protecting girls through offering them life skills and resources to manage their periods so they can stay in school is at least one way to address the above statistics.

Through the work I do as a Youth Facilitator for Huru International, I have the chance to interact with in- and out-of-school girls in different communities. These girls have a shared experience: they lack one of the most fundamental and essential commodities to manage their inevitable biological need. They lack sanitary pads. In addition, some of them may have experienced gender-based violence.

A female student watches intently during a Huru Educational Seminar

A female student watches intently during a Huru Educational Seminar

In our educational sessions, we hold small interactive group sessions to create a safe space, managed by at least two able youth facilitators. Puberty, self-awareness, self-esteem, decision making, and sexually transmitted infections, are some entry point topics we use to engage the girls and encourage them to speak up in case they have a pressing issue they need to share.

In most cases during our interactive sessions, it emerges that girls are not able to come out and speak openly what they may be going through. We notice that when bringing up issues, they always use a second person:

What if my uncle is always touching my friend inappropriately? Who should I tell if their parents are unapproachable?

I have a friend whose father is abusing her sexually. What do you think she should do?

We have been socialized to believe that we are the contributors to our own misfortune, which forces us to be silent in fear of being viewed differently, or from choosing to confide in another person, even if just to seek answers as to what is troubling us.

Sometimes we do but with precautions. Some of the girls follow us after the sessions to bring up an issue privately. We refer girls with guidance counselors who can open a case and further refer a girl to medical services.

A Huru Youth Facilitator leads a small-group breakout session

A Huru Youth Facilitator leads a small-group breakout session

To help prevent these issues from happening, we teach the girls through role playing how to communicate clearly, to be assertive and negotiate in situations where they see no way out. In addition, we help them to identify the factors impeding them from achieving their goals and dreams in life. We also encourage them to reach out to helplines or trusted sources when needs arise and they need to talk to someone other than their parents.

It is imperative that we address menstrual health management issues when we talk about Gender Based Violence, because young girls and women lacking sanitary pads create a breeding ground for sexual abuse, coercion and harm. 65% of women and girls in Kenya cannot afford sanitary pads. Knowing this, men will promise young women, often minors, to provide sanitary pads in exchange for sex. A 2015 study explored how 15-year old girls in Kenya engage in transactional sex for sanitary pads.

Without resources to manage menstruation and the knowledge required to take care of her body and safeguard her future, girls are more likely to engage in risky behaviors, have an earlier sexual debut, drop out of school, or contract sexually transmitted diseases or HIV.

With silence ingrained at such a young age, girls in this situation may feel like an economic burden to their families, forcing them to pay for sanitary pads at the expense of food for the family. The viscous cycle of poverty beckons her, perhaps forcing her into an early marriage, or dropping out of school and continuing the culture of silence surrounding gender-based violence.

Educational sessions on gender-based violence are necessary to help girls identify forms of abuse, and to help them feel empowered to speak up. Even their parents need to attend these sessions to help understand the pervasiveness of the issue, and to help bring perpetrators to justice.

If you or someone you know is experiencing gender-based violence, please reach out for help. The only way to erode the culture of silence is to begin talking about it, together. Speaking about the way it harms us, our relationships, our communities and our world.

If you are in the U.S., call the National Sexual Assault Hotline: 800–656–4673

If you are in Kenya, call the 1195 Hotline, a free 24-hour hotline for reporting cases of gender-based violence.

Agnes Matagaro is a Huru International Youth Facilitator. She believes in standing up for what is just and right and the importance of sharing knowledge to help others grow as well. This led her to choose a path in working with women, girls, children and youth. She has a strong conviction that if all women and girls have the right tools, the world will thrive in all aspects. Agnes is currently pursuing a Masters Degree in Gender and Development studies.

Huru International