While development is riddled with complex acronyms and detailed budgets, sometimes the least intricate programs are the most effective. The Girls’ Forum is one example. Implemented by Education for Marginalized Children of Kenya (EMACK) in Kenya’s Coast and North East Province, the program has altered the lives of many young women.
The Girls’ Forum is essentially an organized peer network. Girls get together in set meetings and talk about everything under the sun - careers, menstruation, boys, homework, family issues. Each group of girls is also provided with a “kit” that contains materials like sanitary towels, underwear, a sewing kit, khangas, and other laundry items to be used during an emergency. As it is, girls will often miss up to 5 days of school a month during their menstruation since sanitary pads are too expensive.
A Girls' Forum training in a school in Tana River District, Kenya
On top of these materials, the Girls’ Forum leaders - girls in their final years of primary and secondary school - bring in guest speakers to talk about issues like nutrition and HIV/AIDS and female role models to inspire confidence. Girls take care of each other: when a fellow student drops out, the girls visit her to try and understand the difficulties she is facing. A common obstacle is unplanned pregnancy.
I have been repeatedly told that seeing the Girls’ Forum in action is incredible. Young women who were previously too shy to speak up in class and challenge their classmates’ opinions, particularly the boys’, are getting up in front of all their peers to talk about their life goals, recite poems and songs and answer the teacher’s questions without a hint of self-doubt.
Fridah Mathembe-Kulubi, who works with EMACK, cites one example where girls have taken the Girls’ Forum a step further - out of school and into the community. In the Girls’ Forum in Hara Primary School in Ijara district in North Eastern Province, girls have started a community advocacy initiative where they go to public markets and shopping centers, and seek an audience with community members. They advocate for the rights of girls to education and create awareness about the dangers of harmful traditional practices such as female genital mutilation (FGM) and early marriages.
Besides the support that the Girls’ Forum offers to students who do not have access to counseling or other support networks in the regions’ underfunded schools, it has the merit of being easy to replicate. The Girls’ Forum demands little financial input while having a long-term and widespread effect. Teachers need only to identify strong female leaders in their classes who can set-up the program and facilitate the meetings.
I am surprised that the Girls’ Forum - or something similar - has not become a core part of the primary and secondary school curriculum in Kenya. While other institutions not under EMACK have adopted similar structures, the formalizing of the Girls’ Forum would ensure that a greater number of girls have access to this network. EMACK says it is currently negotiating with the Kenyan Ministry of Education to have the model adopted as a strategy for empowerment, increased enrollment and improved performance in all Kenyan schools.
Systemic change in development - such as building women’s confidence at a young age to increase their participation in the formal economy - is not something easy to achieve. Yet, it is a necessary step if aid and development funding is going to make a long-term, tangible difference. Methods like the Girls’ Forum, which give women more control over their own future, offer inspiration for other simple but highly functional projects.