This story is part of World Pulse’s Girls Transform the World digital action campaign
World Pulse believes that when girls and their champions are heard, they will transform the world. The Girls Transform the World campaign showcases solutions and unites grassroots voices speaking out for the rights of girls worldwide.
We have heard from hundreds of girls, women, and male allies around the world and collected their voices, ideas, passions, and cries. These incredible stories are now impacting policy and transforming the world, so that girls everywhere can aspire to the education of their dreams.
Women to Watch: 4 Girls’ Empowerment Champions
Q&A with Phionah Musumba
Phionah Musumba: In rural Western Kenya, educating a girl in the family is a luxury. For every ten girls who join primary school, only four graduate at the end of the eight year course, while only two out of ten girls finish the four year high school course. Out of every three girls in a well off family, only one gets a decent post secondary education. This lucky one is often the eldest and gets the privilege because her parents have to keep up appearances. Her sisters are usually married off to older men, or wealthy younger men, in arranged and forced marriages.
Poverty−stricken parents send their underage daughters to work as house helps in order to help meet the family’s basic needs, which include paying for the school fees of their brothers, who are believed to need the education more.
It goes without saying that this culture of forcing young girls to fend for themselves at tender ages plays a vital role in the spread and their contraction of HIV and AIDS, which is almost the norm in my community.
I founded the Centre for Disadvantaged Girls as a haven for girls and young women to address education, poverty eradication, social and community development, women’s empowerment, and women’s health. The center offers lessons on adolescence and sexuality in surrounding primary and secondary schools to empower girls with knowledge to help them not to succumb to peer pressure or to give up on their dreams. I do odd jobs and pay school fees for the girls, besides meeting their other basic needs.
How did you know that this is what you wanted to do with your life?
I dropped out of school due to poverty, got married young at 17, and after experiencing unending misery, went back to sit for the final exams five years into my marriage. I had two daughters at that time who I didn’t want to share in my fate.
One day I took a small loan from my brother-in-law, though at the time it seemed like a very huge amount. I accompanied a friend to a local market where I bought a small sack of onions and started selling them to meet my family’s needs. Every evening I used to collect discarded vegetables and fruits that couldn’t be sold, and I would take them home to my family to eat.
The profits were not enough to sustain us and soon enough, I had to give it all up. It was as I was making the long trek home after closing my first ever business that it suddenly hit me that I had been unlucky thus far because of lack of an education.
That night I asked my husband to help me register for my final high school exams, and to borrow the registration fee from his cousin. When the results came, despite being a stay at home mother, I passed well. I got a sponsor who agreed to pay for my college education, and I met a World Pulse member named Lindy Wafula who became my mentor.
I have lived the discrimination and belittlement that comes with the lack of a basic education. When I was out searching for work, I was discriminated against because of my gender at almost every office I went to. I was faced with three choices: buy the job, know someone at the top, or sleep with the boss to get the job! I had no money, knew no one, and couldn’t compromise my morality just for a job. I have no doubt that fighting for the girl child’s right to education is the best thing I have ever done or will ever do with my life!
How do you know you’ve been successful?
I know I have been successful because I have helped 46 girls and young women acquire an education. I am proud to say one of my charges, from a home with domestic violence, is now in her first year of Law at the University of Nairobi. These young women were all from very poor backgrounds. Thirteen of them had dropped out of various classes in high school and already had families, some as single mothers. They are now employed or self-employed, and are self-reliant. Sixteen of the girls currently work with me at the centre.
What advice do you have for young future women leaders?
Never be afraid to confront the unknown, because it is better to try and fail rather than live with the agony of what might have been.