Content warning: the following post contains mention of sexual violence.
Societal change doesn’t happen overnight and is often a slow, painstaking process that spans generations. As the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu once said: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”
Growing up in rural Kenya, in a small village in the Kathiani region of Machakos, patriarchy was deeply woven into the fabric of our society. I grew up watching my sisters doing the thankless work of cooking and fetching water from strenuously long distances. Given my family didn’t keep a large herd of animals, the work for me and my brothers of looking after goats felt immensely easier. Although my father didn’t harbor any discriminatory feelings between boys and girls, patriarchy still seeped through.
Poverty held us by the throat, keeping our finances meager and my father in constant debt. In the background, my unschooled mother supplemented my father’s income through a greengrocery business in the village square. She was up before the sun, beginning her lengthy journey to the town and ensuring our mouths were fed and our education well taken care of. However, in a culture that prioritized male education, my sisters did not get the privilege of proceeding beyond high school. I, on the other hand, went on to become ordained and an accomplished educator.
As a child, I hardly realized all the dynamics I was witnessing, or the inequalities faced by my sisters. Nevertheless, hindsight has proved to be a powerful tool. Our unsung hero, my mother, plays center stage in this story. Raised in a family that didn’t see the value of education, she still managed to break through those conceptions and instill its importance in us. In my village, she is something of a revolutionary. Her blood, sweat and tears set my homestead apart from the rest; full of learned, determined and accomplished individuals who continue to challenge societal norms.
She lit a fire in me that only grew brighter when I participated in the Girl Child Long Walk Fellowship in 2021. The Fellowship cemented something I always suspected to be true: this is what I was created to do. I will spare no effort in calling men in Kenya and in Africa to step back and make space for girls and women to grow and excel.
A missing link in community transformation
At the end of the Fellowship, we were given the opportunity and support to work on a project of our choosing and I got inspired to do something new in my community with what felt like an untapped and missing constituency in the work of gender equality: the village chiefs and assistant chiefs.
After the Fellowship was over, I adapted the Girl Child Long Walk reading journey into something we could use to reach this target audience. The program we launched enlisted 24 chiefs and assistant chiefs drawn from the three southeast Kenya Counties of Machakos, Makueni, and Kitui. These leaders are directly in touch with people at the grassroots level where ordinary life happens and where patriarchal gender norms persist within the invisible fabric of the family and the community and create change. They enforce government policies and officiate at various public forums including burials, school meetings, weddings, development forums, and public holidays. They have a right to call for baraza, community public gatherings to discuss important matters, and to share information with the public.
This cadre of leadership is the unrecognized missing link in community transformation in general and also with respect to the traditional layer of society which all too often sanctions patriarchal norms that make girls and women so vulnerable to harmful practices, overwork, marginalization, sexual exploitation, and myriad forms of violence. These leaders are called on to arbitrate in most gender-based violence cases, marital and inheritance disputes, among others but they could do much more to galvanize great awareness of and action to address the pervasive nature of gender-based exploitation in our communities.
Local initiatives to safeguard and liberate girl children
The Kenya Reading Journey has inspired several local initiatives to transform gender norms and liberate the girl children in Kenya from needless oppression and violence. The administrators have committed themselves to mainstream issues related to girl children in their public engagement rather than sweep these under the carpet or treat them as a taboo topic that can’t be talked about.
Some of the administrators have initiated specific programs to challenge prevailing gender customs and practices to safeguard and liberate girls in their communities. For example, three administrators have mapped key stakeholders to mobilize various groups to keep an eye out for harmful things happening to girls in their communities. As a result, two teenage girls in Makueni County have been rescued from early marriages and funds were raised to enroll them back in school in 2023.
An assistant chief in Makueni County brought together 274 girls to talk about what it means to be a girl in that community. She invited various professionals from the region to speak to the girls on various issues. The forum will convene every school holiday under the banner of Daughters of Legacy (DOL).
Another administrator, chief Cecilia Nzyoka, rescued three girls from female genital mutilation. In December last year, she received intelligence reports that several Maasai families were planning to circumcise girls when the schools closed. In another village, with advanced knowledge of what was about to happen, she was able to apprehend the traditional circumciser and rescue six girls before they underwent the cut. She has since intensified sensitization campaigns in the region.
The Kenya Girl Child Long Walk reading journey has emboldened the administrators to take steps to dismantle patriarchy. Several administrators have enhanced their efforts in exposing perpetrators of gender-based violence particularly those involving underage girls. During a meet-the-people tour, Peter Ngui, an assistant chief, discovered a girl who had been denied an opportunity to go to school because the parents favored her brother. The administrator picked up the matter and is working towards raising funds from the community to pay the girl’s school fees.
With all this new awareness, one administrator discovered that a young girl was being sexually abused by her father. The girl boldly wrote a letter seeking help from her school headteacher. The headteacher did not know what to do. He forwarded the matter to the administrator. The girl has since been rescued from the family, taken to school with the support of well-wishers and is living in housing provided by the administrator.
The letter in Kiswahili is a detailed narration by the girl of what happened. She says that her father had been persuading her to have sex and for some time she refused until one day when she yielded. When she reported to her mother, the matter was handled among family members and covered up but the father did not stop. He continued to sexually abuse her.
One administrator explained how the journey has given her a community of like-minded administrators. “I feel I belong…I can share my challenges with people who will understand me.” We created a WhatsApp platform for the administrators to share information, ideas and to inspire one another with practical roles they can play to protect girls in their respective communities. The forum has become an accountability platform and a place to inspire one another with novel ideas and experiences of dismantling patriarchy.
The Girl Child will not be free until every segment of society is on her side shifting harmful gender norms inherited from the past. The example and story of my mother inspires me every day to lean in and do my part to create a more safe, fair, and gender equal world. My daughter does as well. And my faith is the spark within which keeps me learning and growing and sparking others to join me on this journey.
Above all, I look forward to societal change, one painstaking step at a time. Taken with others, every little step is magnified and ripples out into the community. I look forward to doing my part to make patriarchal norms a thing of the past. I will spare no effort in calling upon men in Kenya and Africa to change their mindsets and patterns of male presumption to give girls and women the honor they deserve and the space to grow and excel and become all they are meant to be. I look forward to watching my daughter’s generation lead and continue the legacy my mother inspired in me.
Rev. Patrick Musembi, Ph.D, is the Dean of the School of the Arts and Sciences at Daystar University in Kenya, where he founded the Peace and International Studies Department in 2010. He is also chair of the National Board of Trustees of the Christian Chapel Kenya where he mentors young pastors, helps them in the running of their local churches, and develops governance and accountability structures for ministries in Kenya and beyond. He was a Girl Child Long Walk Fellow in the 2021–2022 cohort.