‘I said no!’ Initiative giving Kenyan girls a new lease of life

From left: Winnie Chemosop, Christine Ameriakol and Esleen Chepyego at HER Lab workshop in Morpus, West Pokot on September 15, 2022. They are beneficiaries of the initiative that offers digital training, hairdressing, entrepreneurship, beadwork, agribusiness, and life skills.

Photo credit: Moraa Obiria | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • At the age of 10,  Lilian James ran away from her home in West Pokot when she heard that she was to undergo FGM.
  • She had heard that a school in Morpus offered refuge to girls who escaped FGM and child marriage.
  • Global Give Back Circle started the HER Lab for skills training and reintegration, within the facility, in 2014.
  • Lilian is among the beneficiaries of the initiative.

On a sunny mid-morning Thursday, Lilian James saw her mother walk away with a large brown sisal basket full of cassava and sweet potatoes.

She was headed for Sigor market in West Pokot, about eight kilometres away from her home.

That was in 2004; she was 10 years old. Her  mother had ordered her to stay home instead of going to school, to handle the domestic chores.

Her young brother was in the fields to graze livestock and their father away, she was alone. It was her time to take off.

The previous day, her peer had informed her of an upcoming ceremony in which they were the guests.

“My friend disclosed to me that the village cutter (the woman who took girls through female genital mutilation-FGM) had identified me for the rite,” she reveals.

She had earlier seen the horror of older girls pinned down for the cut; the mention that she was next in line numbed her.

“I said no! I won't go through it,” she says, shaking her head.

Lilian James outside her mother-in-law's brick house in Chepkorniswo village in West Pokot on September 15, 2022. She escaped FGM at the age of 10. She is one of the first group of rescued girls in West Pokot who are now engines of development in her community.

Photo credit: Moraa Obiria | Nation Media Group

Months earlier, she had heard from her church of a school in Morpus, which offered refuge to girls who escaped FGM and child marriage.

Ms James decided to find her way there.

On the night of her escape, she wouldn’t get a single dose of sleep. No one had the slightest idea of her scheme to escape. She was in her normal behavior throughout.

And the time came.

“I waited for her to go far away so that she would not reach me in case anyone informed her (her mom) of my escape,” she says.

In her torn black rubbers and dress, she left home in a hurry, running through the bushes.

Luckily, passengers in a public van heading to Morpus saw “the lost girl” and offered her a ride.

Finally, she landed at Morpus Primary School.

Entry to Morpus Primary School in Morpus, West Pokot. Girls at risk of FGM and child marriage run to the school for refuge and they are hosted at a rescue centre within the school.

Photo credit: Moraa Obiria | Nation Media Group

Her escape turned the tide for her. She became one of the first group of rescued girls in West Pokot who have turned out to be engines of development in her community.

Upon her rescue, she was put under the care of a rescue centre. The facility was established in 2002, by World Vision, was within the school compound. It is managed by the school. She joined Class Four at the school.

At home, her school attendance was irregular. Her mother determined when she would go to school.

“I would be in school today and tomorrow she would tell me, ‘No, you're not going to school. You're going to fetch water,’ ” she says.

“I don't even know whether I was in Class Two or Class Three because every time I resumed, I would join a class where I felt I had more friends,” she says with a hearty laughter.

Gated community

Upon completing her primary school (she scored 293 marks in her Kenya Certificate of Primary Education-KCPE) she joined St Elizabeth Girls High School and scored a D plus in the final exam.

Thereafter, she was enrolled in Her Lab, a program by Global Give Back Circle-Kenya that skills vulnerable girls in Kenya, and converts them into resources for boosting growth in their communities.

All these facilities are in an arrangement likened to a gated community.

The rescue centre is within Morpus Primary School compound, which ensures the security of the rescued girls. 

They just walk across the fence to attend class at the primary school. Once they complete, they proceed to St Elizabeth Girls High School, which is directly opposite, and less than five minutes apart.

But how these facilities came to be is like a stream that flows from a mountain with water ending up in people's homes through taps.

Rose Njenga, Senior Program Manager for mentor programs at HER Lab during the interview on September 15, 2022 at their premises in Morpus, West Pokot. 

Photo credit: Moraa Obiria | Nation Media Group

“World Vision started the rescue centre in 2002 to host girls who were running away from home to the school,” explains Global Give Back Circle-Kenya, Mentor Programs and HER Lab, senior program manager, Rose Njenga. 

Before then, she says, they would put girls in foster homes, mainly in the school teachers’ homes.

“Then when the first cohort of girls were about to sit their KCPE, a friend to our CEO (Linda Lockhart) visited the school with World Vision. During her conversation with the girls, she asked them ‘where will you go after KCPE?’ ” she says.

“They said they were thinking of repeating until the rescue centre figures out where to take them. They would not go back to their homes since they had run away and their families had disowned them.” 

Touched, she decided to start a secondary school for the girls.

Initially, they had lessons from a local church as she looked for land to buy. And they called the school, St Elizabeth Girls High School.

She later found a portion of land adjacent to the primary school.  The Good Samaritan then built one class for Form One.

“The primary school head teacher then registered the secondary with the Ministry of Education, necessitating the deployment of a principal. The government also started placing girls in the school,” says Ms Njenga.

The donor then invited Global Give Back Circle CEO, Ms Lockhart, to visit the school.

Skills training

The girls told them completion of high school marked the end of the road for them. They saw no future for themselves since their parents had already disowned them.

Ms Lockhart then started the HER Lab in 2014.

And so there was a complete transition from the rescue center to primary school, to high school, to HER Lab for skills training and reintegration.

And Ms James is among the 14 girls who first benefitted from this program.

“Form Four was the end of us. We knew getting back home meant getting married,” she  says.

For the next six months, her cohort went through various trainings at HER Lab including digital, hairdressing, entrepreneurship, beadwork, agribusiness, and life skills.

Each of them was also attached to a mentor who committed to seeing them through college. The mentors covered their educational expenses in addition to guiding them.

Her mentor supported her to join Eldoret Technical Training College where she studied health record management at a certificate level before advancing to diploma.

Left behind

She graduated in 2018, and Global Give Back Circle-Kenya, absorbed her as a program assistant.

While in campus, she utilised the hairdressing skills she had earlier acquired from HER Lab to start a salon. The proceeds covered her subsistence expenses.

“I would be living a miserable life had I not run away,” she says.

“Often, sadness fills me whenever I think of the friends I left behind. They have 10 children; all closely spaced and they are struggling to provide for them. Their situation is pathetic,” piteous Ms Lilian exclaims.

“My life would be the same, if it wasn't for this process.”

Now, she is living a happy life, she says.

Lilian James with her mother-in-law Cheposokom Lokapel, outside her brick house in Chepkorniswo village in West Pokot on September 15, 2022. She has been empowered through HER Lab.

Photo credit: Moraa Obiria | Nation Media Group

“I have a husband of my choice. I'm earning. My sisters are looking up to me and I'm also paying fees for my siblings,” she shares.

She is the second born of five children-three sisters and two brothers. And she was married to her college sweetheart in 2019, and together they have two children.  

With her salary, she has not only built herself a brick house, but also lifted her mother-in-law out of the mud-house. She has also constructed her a similar modern house.

She spent Sh5,000 to connect the homestead with piped water. They also have electricity courtesy of her.

“I’m so proud of her. Thanks to her, I’m no longer using a kerosene tin lamp, which left me with sore and itchy eyes,” remarks indebted Cheposokom Lokapel, her mother-in-law who carried her three-year-old son throughout the interview.

Going back to visit her parents was a tough decision to make. She was afraid of the punishment that awaited her. 

“When you return home after running away, you're thoroughly punished. The family summons the strongest young men in the village to whip you properly,” she says.

“You're punished because your action led to the family losing dowry in the form of cows, goats, and sheep.” 

But her family gave her a warm reception and her mother was proud of her achievement thus far.

HER Lab program has since expanded its coverage and beneficiaries. Initially, it enrolled only rescued girls from West Pokot County, but it now includes orphans or those whose parents can’t afford to educate them; from all parts of Kenya.

And Esleen Chepyego from West Pokot is among the latest 115 vulnerable girls enrolled in the program.

Esleen Chepyego enjoys doing plumbing trials at HER Lab workshop in Morpus, West Pokot on September 15, 2022. She envisions being a plumbing trainer.

Photo credit: Moraa Obiria | Nation Media Group

She joined last May, after staying home for nearly three years with no hope of joining college.

She sat her Kenya Certificate of Secondary School Education (KCSE) in 2019 and scored a C plain.

When the opportunity knocked, she sprung and grasped it. Her mother brought her the application forms from a church member. Global Give Back Circle-Kenya mainly uses the church and chiefs to distribute the forms to needy girls.

She was excited when she received the call notifying her of the acceptance of her application.

“She asked me if I had accepted the offer and I said ‘I can even come running right away,’” a bubbly Ms Chepyego says.

She enjoys digital training and plumbing course. She envisions being a plumbing trainer.

Her fellow cohort, Winnie Chemosop from Baringo County, also loves the same courses in addition to agribusiness.

Winnie Chemosop who has fallen in love with the digital training and plumbing course offered at HER Lab in Morpus, West Pokot.

Photo credit: Moraa Obiria | Nation Media Group

But her desire is different.

“Since childhood, I wanted to be a medical specialist in the Kenya Defence Forces and I won’t give up on my dream. I will leverage on the digital, plumbing and agribusiness skills to realise it,” she concludes.

She completed high school in 2017 and scored a C plain. She says although her parents were ready to pay her college fees, her peers convinced her to forgo joining college.

In 2020, she had a son, and a harsh life at home taught her a lesson. But the program, she says, has given her a second chance to reclaim herself. 

The program has also given Christine Ameriakol from Turkana County a new lease of life. 

Her parents could not afford to see her through college. She sat her KCSE in 2021 and scored a D plus.

By the time her relative informed her of the opportunity, she had already applied for a certificate course in community health and department. Had it been successful, she was expected to report in May 2022.

“But I knew, I was unlikely to report to college because my parents neither had anything to sell to raise my fees nor were they working. So, the moment, my relative informed me of the opportunity, I immediately accepted,” she says.

Christine Ameriakol displays her electrical skills at HER Lab workshop in Morpus, West Pokot on September 15, 2022.

Photo credit: Moraa Obiria | Nation Media Group

Electrical work is her favourite course as she wants to be an electrician. She also hopes to be a successful businesswoman. 

Ms Njenga of the Global Give Back Circle- Kenya, says more than 700 girls have benefitted from the program since its inception.

Initially, they enrolled an average of 50 girls owing to little funding. But the latest entrant of Mastercard Foundation into their donors’ pool significantly boosted their work.

With their financial support, they took in more than half of their previous cohorts - 115 girls.

“Now, in addition to girls from St Elizabeth Girls High School, we enrol girls from Turkana, Baringo, Trans Nzoia and Uasin Gishu counties,” she says.

They have also improved their training, extending the training period from six months to one year. They have introduced courses certified by the National Industrial Training Authority.

“When it started, it was more of a transition for the girls as they awaited to join college or university. But then we realised we were equipping them with skills that would easily secure them a job but then they would not get a certification for learning for just six months. We needed to expand the time frame,”  explains Ms Njenga.

Caroline Menach, principal at St Elizabeth Girls' Secondary School, outside the school gate on September 15, 2022.

Photo credit: Moraa Obiria | Nation Media Group

St Elizabeth Girls High School, principal, Caroline Menach, commends the program saying they have saved girls from FGM and child marriage, and empowered them to give back to the community.

To sustain the ‘circle’, every girl who is absorbed into the program makes a commitment to give back to the community.

“The future of the rescued girls starts to brighten up from the moment they are accepted by the teachers at Morpus Primary School, their first point of protection,” she notes.

The program lives up to the motto of “mentor, educate, empower, employ her.”

Nearly all staff employed at Global Give Back Circle-Kenya are alumnae of the program.