What you need to know:
- A young Teso woman, Ms Abukayo Murunga is out to change the lives of teenage girls confronted with poverty in Busia County who engage in sex in exchange for money.
- Many have dropped out of school due to early pregnancies, early marriages, lack of guidance by a responsible adult and ill-health resulting from sexually transmitted diseases.
- She provides information on sexual reproductive health and rights to enable girls (and women) make informed decisions about their sexuality and not fall victims of their own desperation.
While living at a border town often offers lucrative cross-border trade for many people, this is not the case for teenage girls in Busia County. Snarl-up of long distance trucks is a common feature at the town that borders Uganda.
The situation worsened during the Covid-19 pandemic with truck drivers having to spend longer days at the border town due to pandemic related checks.
Confronted with poverty, teenage girls and women in the region engage in sex in exchange for money; money the young girls need so much to purchase vital things like sanitary pads.
Many have dropped out of school due to early pregnancies, early marriages, lack of guidance by a responsible adult and ill-health resulting from sexually transmitted diseases.
A young Teso woman, Ms Abukayo Murunga is, however, out to change this story. The 26-year-old has been in rural Teso for the last five years, doing everything possible to bring other women into safe paths.
Access to education
“I am familiar with the challenges girls and women here go through. Challenges that limit their access to education and opportunities for growth. For instance, girls miss school during their menstruation days because of their parents’ inability to provide them with menstrual hygiene management products," she says.
Ms Murunga adds: "I have seen families languishing in abject poverty and as a result, send their girls to engage in sex (not as express as it may sound) with truck drivers, as a way of fending for themselves and families. I have visited schools where girls as young as ten years have been impregnated. It breaks my heart. It is here that l find my reason to create change in this community."
With every rising sun, Ms Murunga is out to scale up her efforts towards addressing these challenges. Her initial activities reached the girls through the Amot Network, a foundation she started eight months ago. Now she reaches them through the Border Hub – a youth and community development organisation in Busia.
She provides information on sexual reproductive health and rights to enable girls (and women) make informed decisions about their sexuality and not fall victims of their own desperation.
"With other like-minded individuals and organisations in the region like (CCGD), we do structured mentorship programmes; tailored towards providing information around goal-setting, life skills such as negotiation skills, assertiveness which go a long way to enable the girls stand up for their rights," explains the Bachelor of Information Systems graduate.
Last June, she adopted the T-boxes (Talking Boxes) approach where girls freely drop their concerns in boxes at a local church.
"I adopted the use of T-boxes after realising that many girls were not speaking out yet they were going through a lot in their homes. Since then, the responses have been overwhelming," Ms Murunga says.
She plans to partner with guidance and counselling teachers in local schools to introduce T-boxes once studies steadily resume, following Covid-19 interruptions.
Ms Murunga and like-minded individuals at the Border Hub run a Sexual Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) programme where they boldly speak to youths about sex, a taboo topic in Teso.
"I am keen on providing information that’s focused on growing and nurturing them. I spend most of my time interacting with girls and women; getting to know their challenges and, together, we develop sustainable solutions."
Ms Murunga observes that "they have so far reached out to at least 200 girls within Teso region. The girls then act as ambassadors in their communities, hence strengthening our reach."
Her outreach has seen close to 50 girls who dropped out of school, due to early pregnancies enrol back in class.
Ms Murunga, who is passionate about advocacy, research and policy reforms on SRHR, is the 'Kenya ni Mimi' (a signature programme by the Ministry of Youth and ICT) ambassador for Busia County.
She is an Emerging Leaders Foundation (EFL) Fellow and the pioneer for Young African Leaders Initiative (Yali) Busia - Chapter. She characterises her success in women and girls' issues in Teso to the knowledge and leadership skills she gathers from EFL and YALI.
Her background with EFL and YALI, she says, has put her on the map including sitting on the Busia County Youth Technical Working Group where she has been directly involved in highlighting gaps that hinder youth development.
Thanks to EFL and YALI, Ms Murunga is equipped with resource mobilisation skills that have helped her engage organisations to provide sanitary pads to needy girls, implement the Talking Boxes and hold regular talks with girls in schools and churches.
Ms Murunga recognises that female poverty and reproductive health is a problem everywhere, thus uses social media too, to move the "powerful information" far and wide.
"I primarily use social media platforms to amplify girls' and women’s issues," she tells The Voice.
The main challenge in Ms Murunga's mission, however, is lack of a stable source of funding and a society that considers the topic on sex a taboo, and a patriarchal mind-set that limits women in terms of land ownership, decision-making and leadership positions.
For the alumnus of Kisii University, women's issues are pressing challenges all over the world thus require urgent attention.
“I want to be at the very forefront influencing the formulation, implementation and strengthening of policies around reintegration of girls who get pregnant prematurely. I want to advocate for the implementation of zero price on sanitary towels so that girls can easily access them and stay in school," says Ms Murunga.
In the words of Mahatma Ghandi, Ms Murunga believes that she is shaking the world in a gentle way.