Empowering girls & young women to advocate for their protection from sexual violence and to exercise bodily autonomy (2018-2020)

Contributor: Nancy Njeru, Program Associate

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Safe Spaces Project
Girls and young women in Kwale are the single most important group of beneficiaries in this project. They are disproportionately affected by diverse forms of sexual violence, most commonly sexual exploitation, transactional sex, rape, early forced and child marriage. This is because of deeply entrenched poverty, low levels of education and societal values that have normalized sexual violence in a background of social and cultural beliefs that discriminate against girls and women and objectifies them. With low educational attainment and high number of girls not enrolled in school, girls have an early sexual debut. As early as twelve years they are forced into transactional sex, are sexually exploited and with almost no formal or informal sexuality education nor access to contraception, many become child mothers, other are forced in marriage.

The Kwale community is patriarchal. Women and girls have little influence in community decisions, no access to or control of family resources or space to make decisions, even about their own sexuality or bodies. The community values and beliefs towards women and girls restrict their access to education and resources. It places their value upon their bodies, domestic and maternal roles, even at a young age, thus their value is in the extent to which they conform to these roles, rather than their inherent rights as humans. The lives and bodies of women and girls are therefore controlled by men – community elders, religious leaders, their fathers, husbands, brothers and even sons.

This complex cultural system shapes the experiences of girls and socializes them to believe they are less than boys and therefore less valuable. This affects their self-esteem and self-belief, making them more vulnerable to many forms of violence and abuse.  Opportunities to be in safe supportive spaces or to engage in girl/woman friendly dialogue that builds and lifts them up are rare. Thus girls are only exposed to the single narrative that values men and boys, but commodifies women and girls.

The Empowering Girls and Young Women in Kwale to Demand Communities Free from Sexual Violence Project is being implemented in Kwale by COVAW with support from Comic Relief. It started from 2018 and will go up to 2020. It will seek to empower girls & young women to advocate for their protection from sexual violence and to exercise bodily autonomy. The target group will be girls and young women in 10 villages in Msambweni and Lunga Lunga Sub-Counties in Kwale County.

Other beneficiaries of this project are the wider community members in Kwale. This stems from their general community unawareness of women and girls rights and their potential to contribute to community and family life if enabled and supported.  Beginning from the community elders down to the individual families, the inherent cultural attitudes marginalize, exclude and discriminate against women and girls from birth and throughout their lives. It is this attitude that leads to girls not being supported to pursue education, but rather their removal from school and commodification through marriage, sex and work. Previous work in Kwale revealed that these are systematic patterns of discrimination that result in high rates of domestic violence , sexual violence, forced child marriage, transactional sex that disproportionately affects girls and young women.

We believe that once a critical mass of girls are informed and aware of their entitlements, can speak up for themselves and demand the space to make choices over their bodies and sexuality, there will be lower levels of community violence. They will be able to support their peers to seek help when violence occurs.  These girls can challenge the normalized violence and begin to transform their community to one where women and girls have a loud unified voice that challenges unjust beliefs and practices.

Written by Nancy Njeru, Program Associate, Kwale County