Beatrice Charo confidently walks as she approaches us, with a fruity voice and a smile that paints a ray of sunshine allover her face, she greets us and ushers us in towards her living room. Here, she speaks passionately about the community she had called home for decades. It is here in the coastline town of Malindi that she had started her teaching career.
With the beautiful beaches that stretch across the horizons of the dark blue waves ocean; a picture is painted of a land at peace with itself yet down the sandy beaches, the cries of young girls making life in the twilight becomes just a whisper, and as Charo puts it, many girls are forced to drop out of school as a result of child exploitation that exposes them to sexual violence, early and forced marriages and child pregnancies.
“Often girls are forced into marital roles when their families betroth them as a trade off to ease poverty. These girls are forced to abandon their education and instead transition to fulfill the duties of wife and mothers,” she explains, noting that this limits girls’ ability to earn income and build sustainable earnings that will lift their families out of poverty and so the cycle of destitution in the family chain becomes limitless.
She says these limitless challenges that the girls face in the community also mirrors in their school performance vis-a-vis boys. Therefore, it is imperative that these learning environments must always be safe and gender inclusive to nurture a sense of responsibility and respect among boys and girls.
At Kibokoni Primary School where she teaches, she has made it her personal cause to ensure that girls are retained in school and that they enjoy safer learning environment free from any exploitation. She credits it to the knowledge that she acquired from several training sessions organized by CREAW for teachers in Kilifi County. In the trainings, teachers are trained on the aspects of gender-based violence (GBV), positive ways to discipline children and the rights and responsibilities pertaining to child protection.
“Every Wednesday, we have a forum where we sit with the girls to listen to the challenges they experience in and around school. This encourages them to speak up to avert severity of psychosocial issues and build on their self confidence,” she says.
Charo however is not alone in the anti-GBV war in schools; Getrude Karisa a teacher at the nearby Upewoni Primary School is elated that by virtue of being teachers, they have the opportunity and responsibility to nurture the voices of school going children under their care to be able to speak out on GBV. Both Charo and Karisa are members of the Beacon Teacher Movement.
The Beacon Teacher Movement is an initiative of the Teachers Service Commission that was initiated to give teachers the opportunity to promote child protection in their schools and communities. The teachers are trained to create awareness of child rights and responsibilities among learners and what to do when they are abused.
Karisa’s major concern is the numerous night Disco matangas- night vigil dances around Malindi attended by men, women and children to dance the night away in celebration of the deceased. Beneath the celebrations, men prey on young girls.
Kilifi has been cited as one of the counties with high prevalence of teenage pregnancies conceived mostly at the local disco matangas. According to the Ministry of Health (MOH) 22 percent of girls aged between 15 and 19 in Kilifi County have began child bearing which is higher than the national statistics which stands at 18 percent.
“A week cannot go by without the night vigils. Many girls are defiled and some end up being pregnant and infected with sexually transmitted diseases in the process,” says Karisa.
She notes that communities must now move away from the popularisation of night vigils, which are unsafe to their daughters. They must have candid conversations on how to protect children. She recalls of a recent incident where a 16-year-old girl who schools at Upewoni was defiled by 18 year old in a disco matanga and the families were unwilling to talk about it or report the issue to the police.
How then does she handle such matters?
“I noticed the girl was pretty much disturbed and unusually quiet while in class. I called her aside and we talked at length, she opened up. We reported the case to the police. The matter is now in court,” Karisa says.
In Kilifi, the County Government issued a directive that banned disco matangas citing the rise in cases of sexual abuse and HIV infections among minors. Despite that night vigils still continues under the watch of local administration officials who collude with communities.
Both Kibokoni and Upewoni Primary schools have speak-out boxes installed in key locations that pupils post their issues. During the monthly parents meeting, the teachers are given an opportunity to educate parents on child protection and to handle GBV incidences when they arise.
Karisa’s main motivation lies with the fact that her parents gave her the opportunity to go to school despite the cultural conservatism on girls’ education among the coastal communities.
“I would not be where I am if I was not empowered through education. I have to ensure all the other girls also get to experience what it means to ascend through education and become responsible adults,” says Karisa.