By David Omondi Otieno
East Africa Program Administrator (Kenya)
Recently, the Kenyan media has been awash with gruesome stories of young girls and women senselessly murdered by their boyfriends or husbands—an unprecedented rise in femicide that encapsulates the struggles women and girls face every day in our society.
With such sensational stories bombarding our hearts and minds, it is easy to succumb to fear—or, worse, apathy. But at The Pollination Project, we strive to provide an antidote to apathy by uplifting the voices of those changemakers who are making a positive difference in the world—changemakers like Mr. Dickson Oketch, a high school teacher at Ndegwe Mixed Secondary School in Siaya, Kenya–and a 2017 East Africa Pollination Project grantee–who is doing outstanding work to give women and girls a platform to reach their full potential.
Having been posted to a rural school with overstretched resources, Mr. Oketch was saddened to see young girls regularly miss out on school during their menstrual cycles. This increased absenteeism negatively impacted the girls’ academic performance, and Mr. Oketch and his colleagues learned that widespread poverty in the village made the girls and their families unable to meet even the most basic of the girls’ needs, such as food, sanitary pads, and pants. As a result, the majority of the girls were ill-prepared for their first menstrual cycle and the accompanying physical development and hygienic requirements.
A lack of information, in addition to the stigma associated with menstruation in Kenya, causes many girls distress and shame, so much so that it is not uncommon for vulnerable young girls to be taken advantage of by predators who exchange food and sanitary products for sex.
In response to such harsh realities, Mr. Oketch, as the guidance and counseling master at his school, started the Hold A Girl’s Hand Initiative, a transformative program that aims to reduce gender-based violence and the high absenteeism rates of rural girls who miss school during their menstrual cycles, as well as bolster rural adolescent girls’ self-esteem and educate them about their sexual and reproductive health rights.
In 2017, TPP awarded Mr. Oketch a $1,000 grant to purchase and distribute free sanitary pads and organize workshops on menstruation and reproductive health rights, career guidance and clinics, and gender-based violence (including how to report abuse such as rape). As part of his grant, he also invited inspirational women to encourage the girls to succeed through motivational talks. He’s been able to sustain the workshops and the distribution of the sanitary pads by training the girls on liquid soap-making to generate income.
The project has since established intentional collaborations between local community leaders and grantees, such as partnerships with Tailored for Education USA, which distributes free school uniforms to rural boys and girls; One Bicycle Foundation USA (founded by TPP grantee Sebouh Bazikian), which provides free bicycles to girls who previously had to walk long distances to school; and the Riley Orton Foundation (founded by the author), a nonprofit supporting underprivileged girls to break the cycle of poverty by implementing sustainable education programs. These partnerships epitomize TPP’s vision of change for the world, where real pathways to the sustainable development of our communities are forged.
The collaborations and program assistance have made a huge difference in the lives of the Siaya county girls. Miss Susan Akoth, an 11th grader at the school, said that the program has boosted her self-confidence and given her and many other girls hope for a brighter future. Miss Prisca Anyango, a 10th grader, was very thankful for the pads and panties she has been given because her family could not previously afford them. She now goes through her menstrual cycles without any worries. Miss Sylvia Otieno, a 12th grader, expressed how the soap-making training has empowered her and her friends to be self-reliant, especially during the holidays when they can make and sell the products to the local community.
Through this program, Mr. Oketch says that he has seen the girls register 100% school attendance rates, improved academic performance, had zero early pregnancy and school dropout cases, and increased self-confidence and self-efficacy among the girls. He is also happy that the girls are no longer at the mercy of men who would otherwise take advantage of their precarious situation, because the girls now have all their basic needs met.
Mr. Oketch is one man who is doing his little bit of good to make the world a better place for girls. As a justice and compassion funder, The Pollination Project is honored to have taken the risk and believed in him at the initial stages of his work and awarded him the seed grant to get his work off the ground even when he didn’t have a track record and would have been unlikely to have received funding from other organizations. Mr. Oketch wonderfully exemplifies the power of the individual, and the incredible difference one person can make!