March 8, will be International Women’s Day. As is usual with me around this time, I am all in a flurry of excitement about the special women and woman-respecting men friends with whom I should celebrate. Singling out those for whom I wish to express my special respect and admiration today is an invidious task.
Fortunately, a recent news item from “Western” decided my Women’s Day darlings for me. My choice was even more justified after an intimate discussion of the news with my newly found friends, Prof Wanjiku Kabira’s PhD scholars at the UoN Centre for African Women’s Studies.
Needless to tell you, I also passionately loved and highly admired these brilliant academicians who have chosen to pursue the lovely discipline of Women’s Studies.
Anyway, the distinguished class of doctoral researchers endorsed my choice to celebrate Women’s Day 2020 with some very special women in Kakamega County. They also suggested some aspects of my celebration that I should share with you. Thus it is, then, that “My heart is in Kakamega, under the Idakho skies!”
Those of you who might have been there will recognise the old song on which I am improvising. But Kenya is not Argentina and I am no Jim Reeves. Idakho is not Idaho either, and I do not even know if the chimbuko (birthplace) of the isukuti dance is still within the county.
Be that as it may, an old Mwalimu may occasionally indulge in a little song and jig like the one I have been having since I got the exhilarating news from Kakamega North.
Reports say that at least 300 girls who had dropped out of school owing to teenage pregnancy were going back to class, with full facilitation from the leadership there. I was also delighted to discover that the girls’ return to school was being handled by organisations like the National Affirmative Action Foundation and the probably more grassroots Tumaini and Eagles Scholarship Programme, managed through the office of Kakamega Woman Representative Elsie Muhanda.
I had never even heard of these organisations! I was, however, definitely uplifted to discover them. We may be writhing in the disconcerting din of alleged rampant corruption, mismanaged Nairobi and cohesion barazas that degenerate into near or real brawls.
But there are Kenyan individuals and organisations that focus and act on wananchi’s concrete everyday problems. This, as exemplified in the beautiful events at the Friends School, Samitsi, just over two weeks ago, is a cause for optimism and hope.
Watching those young women, in their school uniforms and carrying their babies, as they received their scholarships and other forms of facilitation for themselves and their babies, one could not help wondering why such patently positive and humane programmes should not be happening more often and more widely right across our country. This, I think, is what making a decisive difference is about.
I had actually seen a version of such a programme in the city of Lawrence, Kansas, back in 1988, when I was on an American Studies programme.
My colleagues and I visited a high school there that had a day-care unit where teenage mothers attended to their babies in between attending classes with their age-mates.
I noted the imaginative approach, but I think most of us on the visit ended up dismissing it as just another aspect of characteristic American “self-indulgence”.
Looking back now, however, with my experience of the challenges that girls and women face almost everywhere in this male-dominated and male-tyrannised world, I cannot help but marvel at the foresightedness of the project. Directly relevant to our African situation is the fact that denying our girls a chance to continue with their education just because they got pregnant and had a baby at some point is a myopic lose-lose approach on every front.
To begin with, the discontinued girl will be a ready-made social and economic failure and liability, as will be her innocent child.
In the end, the biggest loser will be the whole society that would have otherwise benefited from the proper education, training and eventual services of these two “children”, and their economic independence.
Indeed, these girls, who find themselves in the predicament of unexpected parenthood, probably need proper education and training than their counterparts who sail through school without such problems.
This is why it is utterly stupefying to hear even some national leaders, mercifully not in Kenya, though not too far away, stridently insisting that any schoolgirl who gets pregnant should be thrown out and never be given another chance. Such chauvinistic and blinkered leaders are even ready to fly in the face of international opinion in defence of their callous stances.
Are such men human? Are they sons, brothers, parents, lovers of women? Do they really know and understand the reality of men-women relationships in our society?
We do not want to advocate or promote promiscuity or irresponsible sexuality. But punishing the pregnant schoolgirl is, in most cases, blaming and punishing the victim of crimes against her. We may not have statistics, but it is common knowledge that a lot of our pregnant girls are victims of seduction, defilement and other forms of sexual assault, including incest and manipulation by some of their own teachers.
Most importantly, as I believe the Hon Muhanda pointed out at Samitsi, our girls are invariably victims of a lack of sex education, resulting from our prudish and hypocritical approach to male-female relationships. They are, like most of us, caught between the rock of so-called “traditional modesty” and the hard place of “religious morality”.
Anytime enlightened people mention the necessity of proper sex education, both sides are prepared to either disinherit them or excommunicate them for their sins of “indecency”.
Yet the problem is not sex education. What we have to deal with is the integrity and clarity with which it is imparted. Burying our heads in the sand about it only worsens the lot of our girls, and of all concerned.
Have a happy International Women’s Day.
Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and literature; [email protected]