Lobby's all-round mentorship drive giving girls a voice

Panelists during the Girls First Summit Conference at Sarova Panafric Hotel.

Photo credit: Photo I Pool

What you need to know:

  • She's the First has trained 245 organisations, reaching 96,440 girls across East Africa.
  • Eighty-two per cent of these organisations have, as a result, reported improved girl engagement policies, and involved girls more in their programmes.

At 21, Elsie Chacha is the youngest board member of an international nongovernmental organisation.

For three years and one month now, Elsie, who is also a mining and mineral engineering student at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, has been sitting on the board of She’s the First, a lobby that teams up with grassroots organisations to ensure girls everywhere are educated, respected, and heard.

“I encountered She’s the First immediately after my high school education. I was only 18 then, and I was attending a summit where the organisation did a presentation, and I really loved what they said they stood for. After that, I intentionally kept tabs on all their activities, both online and offline.

“A year later, I bumped into a call they had made for applications to serve on their board. I took a leap of faith, applied, and was shortlisted. The process was quite rigorous, and I wasn’t even sure I would get it, being that I was accustomed to board members being old and well experienced guys,” she recounts as she invites me to a Girls First Summit organised by She’s the First.

Elsie Chacha, a mining and mineral engineering student at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology.

Photo credit: Photo I Pool

Elsie confides that because of the lessons and exposure she has gained from the organisation, she is a student leader on campus. “I have also learnt to brand and package myself for the corporate world,” she notes, as she scrolls through her social media platforms, where she has a notable following.

Further, under the stewardship of She’s the First, she has come up with a personal initiative dubbed ‘I can read, I can write, I can communicate’ to help children in marginalised schools develop their English.

After my encounter with Elsie, I agree to attend the summit to find out for myself if there are other girls benefitting from the programme. However, I choose not to tell her I’d honour her invitation. I want to do this on my own, without the influence of the organisation.

“Lack of sexual reproductive health information, poverty, and lack of sanitary towels are factors leading to teenage pregnancies and harmful cultural practices in my community. Further, forced marriage is mostly caused by poverty and teenage pregnancy.”


These are the first words that I hear as I approach the conference hall at the Sarova Panafric Hotel, where the Girls First Summit Conference is taking place. Probably, if these words were coming from an adult, they wouldn’t have made me hasten my steps. But the voice is that of a young but confident girl, I can tell.

It turns out that the young girl is 12-year old Hope* from Kibera in Nairobi. She is taking part on the Girl Expert Panel. I find my seat and quietly follow the impressive and engaging panel discussion by three young girls on issues ranging from sexual health to mental health among schoolgirls.

I later catch up with Hope and come to appreciate the fact that she is brilliant and open-minded beyond her years. She later tells me that she believes teenage pregnancies can be solved by creating more spaces for girls in terms of mentorship and getting access to sexual reproductive health information.

“Also, I think it should be standard practice to provide free menstrual products to the schoolgirls.”

The Girls First Summit is a free conference for those working with underserved, vulnerable girls to improve their skills, practise being more girl-centred in their programmes, and have a space to network with one another. The conference is organised by She’s the First.

“This is our seventh iteration of the summit and in the last seven years, through the Girls First Summit, we have been able to train245 organisations, reaching 96,440 girlsacross East Africa. Eighty-two per cent of these organisations have, as a result, reported improved girl engagement policies, and involved girls more in their programme design, implementation, and evaluation cycles after six months of attending the summit,” notes Kate Kiama, the director of programmes and impact at She’s the First, while giving her opening remarks.

As we go for tea break, I get to share a table with one Wuday Jaiteh and the one thing that prompts me to chat her up is her accent. It is crispy and fresh, so I ask her where she is from, to which she shoots me a friendly smile before telling me she is from the Gambia. “So, what brings you to this conference?” I want to know.

Wuday Jaiteh, a law student at the University of Gambia.

Photo credit: Photo I Pool

“She’s the First is technically a part of me, of my being! I joined the organisation 10 years ago when I was only 12! Everything that I am today is a result of the mentorship and hand-holding that I have been offered by the organisation,” the University of Gambia law student beams.

“When I first heard of the organisation, I was very shy and I could not express myself, but now I have confidence and am able to speak my mind. I have come to appreciate that not only people with power have a right to speak. I can confidently speak my mind in a room full of men and know that whatever I say really matters. To pay it forward, I am actively involved in offering mentorship to young girls, back home.”

Gladys Njeri is the founder of Her Voice Matters, which is dedicated to eradication of period shame in schools in Kibera and Mathare, Nairobi. An experience from her high school motivated her to start up the organisation. “We are currently working with five schools in these slums with an estimate of 180 girls each,” she notes.

Gladys is also a youth ambassador at She’s the First representing Kenya on the global map. “The one thing I like about the organisation is that they don’t just facilitate conferences like this, rather, they always follow up to ensure you implement the lessons picked and there’s always a reward for the implementers,” smiles the Technical University of Kenya (TUK) economics student.

Gladys Njeri, the founder of Her Voice Matters, which is dedicated to eradication of period shame in schools in Kibera and Mathare, Nairobi.

Photo credit: Photo I Pool

During our lunch break, I meet Shirleen Adhiambo from Siaya. Have you been mentored by She’s the First as well? Did they facilitate your coming for the conference?” I strike up a conversation. “No, I am from Siaya Muungano Network (Simun), a youth-led women rights and youth development organisation dedicated to ensuring women and youth’s voices are amplified,” she starts.

“I am the executive director and our organisation had submitted a proposal for funding to She’s the First some time back, but we were not successful. They, however, share existing opportunities with us from time to time, and we attend the ones that we can. She’s the First did not facilitate me being here, but they reimbursed transport for one of the mentees I came with.”

On what her takeaways from the Summit were, she said she learnt quite a number of things. “The need for us to centre girls in our programming because they understand what they want and that we be consistent in our engagement with them was emphasised and I couldn’t agree more,” she reflects.

“I have also learnt that fundraising for organisations should be focused on friend raising so that even in your absence, whenever there are opportunities, your friends can talk about you for you. I also loved the games they shared with us. My colleagues and I were oriented on how to use them, and we will be rolling them out to our schools,” she concludes enthusiastically.

*Name changed to protect identity of the adolescent girl.