Atieno is a pitiful eight-year-old girl in Marjorie Oludhe-Macgoye’s poignant poem "A Freedom Song", which is often referred to as Atieno.
She works her fingers to the bone in her aunt's house while her cousins enjoy basic rights and freedoms that she’s denied. Years later, she falls pregnant and bleeds to her death and "meat and sugar are lavished at her funeral".
Decades after the poem was written, gender equality remains far out of the reach of many girls in Kenya and across the world.
Atieno is Jackline Chepng’eno, a 14-year-old girl from Bomet County who committed suicide on September 6 because her teacher period-shamed her when her menses began while she was in class and soiled her clothes.
Jackline’s story is the reality of thousands of girls in Kenya and, while their stories may not end in death, their schooling and self-esteem certainly die.
Besides, many of the girls who manage to stay in school can’t even afford to be on their menses because the tendering process that would have seen free, sufficient and quality sanitary towels provided by the government was botched.
Atieno is the one in five girls in Kenya aged 15-19 years, who have had a baby or are pregnant. Atieno is among the 23 per cent of Kenyan girls married before their eighteenth birthday, or the four per cent who are married before they turn 15.
If Atieno falls pregnant, she will be among the thousands who will die of an unsafe abortion or excessive bleeding. If she doesn’t die, she will probably have fistula and live with the attendant shame and stigma for the rest of her life.
Atieno is Liz, the Busia girl who was raped in 2014. She’s 26-year-old Lucy Nyira from Nakuru, who was doused in petrol and set aflame by her husband for “coming home late”.
Atieno is 20-year-old Asali Bai, who came to Kenya in November 2018 because she wanted to find ways of supporting her family back in Nepal, but ended up working as a sex slave in Mombasa.
It’s not all cloudy for girls, though. Rays of hope have certainly shone through the clouds, and today we celebrate fewer maternal deaths and many girls are protected from child marriages and female genital mutilation.
The media are replete with stories of rescue centres for girls who have undergone female genital mutilation and other forms of gender-based violence, and of girls who have defied the odds to become women of substance.
The focus on girls has been dismissed as neurotic and superfluous by some self-declared “boy-child” crusaders, but they have it twisted. It is not and has never been a competition between the sexes.
And nobody wants to leave boys behind as has been claimed.
For anyone with the slightest sense of justice and fairness, the greatest desire would be for girls and boys to rise together side by side.
It’s about giving girls and boys equal opportunities. This is the undeniable prerequisite of gender equality.
This is in no way meant to slight the many challenges faced by boys, but in light of the International Day of the Girl Child marked on October 11, we owe it to girls to illuminate the undistilled reality of their experiences: that even today, they still face serious and insidious problems that can't be ignored.
Beyoncé was wrong in her song "Run the World (Girls)". Girls don't run the world. Not yet, at least.
Not until we get rid of obstacles that stand in their way; because girls deserve to grow up to be women who will run the world.
She was, however, right when she sang that girls have endless power and their persuasion can build a nation.
This year's theme for the International Day of the Girl Child is "Unscripted and Unstoppable", and it's our responsibility to do all that’s in our power to make those words mean something.
The writer is the editor, ‘Living Magazine’; [email protected]