In Kenya, as in many places around the world, a girls' journey into adolescence is a challenging time. She faces significant pressures and expectations.
When we travel across Kenya to talk to the adolescent girls we work with, we ask them to write down any questions they may have and give them to us anonymously. For a few moments, girls huddle up around little colored index cards to write down the most pressing issues in their lives or what they are most curious about. It could be about the moon, boys, what they want to be when they grow up... anything and everything they have questions about.
Overwhelmingly, we get questions about their bodies.
Out of the 1,500 questions we've received from adolescent girls this year alone, over 40% of questions were about their changing bodies. We get questions like:
"When I get periods for the first time what can I do?"
"Why do breast come on our chest?"
And my personal favorite:
"Why are we different, girls and boys?"
If you think about it, adolescence is universally the first time girls begin to notice their bodies. There are so many physical and emotional changes that happen at once that suddenly they become conscious of their physical presence. Adolescence is a critical turning point for all children, but particularly for girls because of the deep societal pressures that become apparent once a girl begins puberty. In our work, we've found that even at the young age of 11 girls intuitively, and, unfortunately, realize that their bodies can be a source of shame. We get questions like:
"What can I do to not feel ashamed of my periods?"
"While walking along the road and guys look at me I feel embarrassed. What can I do to overcome this?"
Adolescence can also expose girls to a variety of different and unwanted advances from boys, and often times older men:
"If a boy likes you and you don't like him what can you do?"
"How would you avoid boys when a boy tries to rape you or injure you?"
"What if your mother forces you to have a boyfriend so that they get wealth?"
The messages that a girl receives during this turning point in her life have a tremendous impact on her future. If a girl understands her rights and her body, she is far less susceptible to engaging in risky behavior. She is far more likely to love and respect herself and make decisions that reflect that. In our work with over two dozen partners across Kenya who work directly with over 10,000 girls, we've found that pro-girl programs have an enormous impact on a girl's sense of self. Our interviews with girls show that an overwhelming number report better self-esteem, self-respect and feel they are better able to manage their periods and emotional changes after engaging in honest discussions around their questions and concerns.
Njoki, a 16 year old said: "This is going to make us actualize our dreams, to make us go as far as boys can, and to make the country be proud of girls and make us equal!"
In our work, we use menstruation--the most natural and obvious sign of the onset of puberty--as a gateway to discuss the variety of fears that come up for girls, as they start their journey towards becoming women. We use this moment to help a girl see her power and potential. This is why we are thrilled that the international community has decided to recognize the power of the adolescent girl for this year's International Day of the Girl Child. We believe that adolescence is the most effective time to answer girls' real questions and ensure that they have the education and tools they need to make informed decisions and fulfill their inherent potential.