At 16 years old, Sheila* has already endured more loss and difficulty than many of us encounter in a lifetime. Both of Sheila's parents died when she was very young, and her aunt cared for her until she completed primary school.
But when it was time for Sheila to start high school, her aunt told her that she was old enough to take care of herself. Sheila was left on her own in Kibera, Kenya's largest slum. She found temporary refuge at a friend's home, but this sense of safety was shattered when her friend's brother attempted to rape her.
Sheila acted courageously when she went to the local children's authority for help. She was subsequently placed in a foster home. But her foster parents are planning to move soon, and Sheila fears that she will be left without a home once again.
Lillian*, age nine, is facing similar challenges. Because her mother is dead and her father is unable to care for her, she lives in Kibera with her aunt and uncle, who often favor their own children over Lillian.
Lillian sleeps on the floor, without a blanket or mattress, and is frequently given less food than her cousins. Recently Lillian reported that her aunt beat her with a pipe.
Despite her difficulties at home, Lillian is an outstanding student at her primary school. Whether she can continue to excel academically in such a harsh home environment, however, is uncertain.
In our work with Uweza Aid Foundation, we encounter girls like Sheila and Lillian nearly every day. Situated outside of Nairobi, Kenya's capital, Kibera is an informal settlement, or slum, where hundreds of thousands of people live on one square mile of land with limited access to clean water, sanitation, and electricity.
Uweza, which means "ability" in Swahili, works hand-in-hand with Kibera residents to break the cycle of poverty that persists in the slum. Rather than imposing our own ideas or solutions on the Kibera community, we first engage with and listen to residents to determine where our programs might have the greatest impact.
Since nearly half of Kibera's population is under the age of 15, Uweza is especially committed to the education and empowerment of local youth. Current Uweza projects include scholarships for primary and secondary school; a soccer academy; journalism, dance, and art clubs; a girls' empowerment club; and life skills training. Uweza also runs its own community center in the heart of Kibera, providing a safe space for youth to study, play, develop their talents, and learn valuable life skills.
Through our sponsorship program, Uweza is currently providing scholarships for Sheila, Lillian, and many other children to attend school. But we have struggled to find secure living conditions for girls who are facing dangerous or abusive home situations.
Without a safe home environment or reliable guardians, Kibera girls face a difficult future. Girls in similar circumstances are thought to be more likely to enter into early marriages, become pregnant, and exchange sex for money to meet their financial needs.
After extensive discussions and research conducted by our staff, we determined that the best solution is to establish a safe home for girls like Lillian and Sheila in Kibera. As envisioned by Uweza, the safe home will provide a secure and stable environment in which girls can fully focus on completing their studies. In addition, the home will protect at-risk girls from sexual assault and domestic abuse.
Uweza plans to engage a female counselor or social worker from Kibera to act as the safe home's guardian. She will provide supervision, guidance, and advice to the girls. Bonds established between the girls themselves will also create valuable support systems to improve the girls' resiliency.
Because girls like Sheila and Lillian face pressing and sometimes dangerous situations, we hope to start the planning phases of the home as soon as possible. We are participating in the Huffington Post/Crowdrise Raise for Women Fundraising Challenge to raise support and awareness for our programs that empower Kibera girls, including the safe home.
Sheila may worry about her future, but she also has goals and ambitions. Once she finishes school, she wants to become an artist or journalist. Most of all, she wants to train as a peer educator to help other girls in her same situation.
The safe home will enable vulnerable girls to realize their dreams and become successful and independent women. With your support, Sheila, Lillian, and others like them can finally thrive in the secure and stable environment that they deserve.
*Names have been changed.
Visit Uweza Aid Foundation's RaiseForWomen Crowdrise page here.