By Leah Tesfamariam (YES 2009-2010, Kenya, hosted by ACES in Toledo, OH)
I’m Leah Tesfamariam, a master’s student in Democratic Governance and Civil Society at the University of Osnabruck in Germany. My YES exchange year in Toledo, OH was incredibly enriching and shaped me and my world view in many ways. Through community service projects at St. Louis Soup Kitchen and Otterbein Nursing Home, I learned the value of volunteerism. Volunteering taught me to take responsibility for issues on which I wanted to see change. Living with four host sisters and a very hardworking host mother, I came to appreciate the tenacity and industrious nature of women. This inspired my interest in feminism and my passion for uplifting other women. A visit to my Ohio Senator’s office and the Kenyan Embassy in Washington, DC influenced my decision to pursue undergraduate university studies in International Relations and Diplomacy.
My exchange year was the first time I ever left Kenya, and I’ve held a deep interest in other countries and cultures since. I have volunteered in Rwanda, and now study in Germany. For a time, I attended a modeling school and developed an interest in fashion. I went on to become the 2nd runner up in the Miss World Kenya pageant in 2013. I credit much of this experience to my exchange year, which made me comfortable with new experiences and encounters. I have made friends from all over the world who I still meet up with when I get the chance to visit their countries. The YES experience transformed me into a global citizen and gave me the capacity to be a leader in a multi-cultural environment.
Karachuonyo is a sub-county in Homa Bay, Kenya and the home of prominent political leader Phoebe Asiyo, one of the pioneers of the women’s empowerment movement in Kenya when she served as the Member of Parliament for Karachuonyo, and who I had the privilege to meet. Homa Bay has gender inequality challenges in the form of biased socialization of girls and boys and unequal access to education. The culture inhibits women and girls’ freedom of expression and behavior. Women are viewed as sexual objects, and girls are forced into submission from the day they are born. Consequently, there are incidents of adolescent girls trading sex for money to buy sanitary towels. Higher levels of illiteracy among women have led to higher rates of unemployment and poverty, lack of access to information, and low bargaining power when it comes to sexuality. The county experiences high levels of early marriage, teenage pregnancy, and HIV/AIDS.
In response to these issues, with the help of my host community in Ohio and a YES Alumni Grant, the project Karachuonyo Safe Space for Young Women and Girls was born. The project established a resource center which is open to the community and will be a safe place for young women and girls between the ages of 13 to 21 to be educated and engage in discussion about sex and reproductive health and receive support free from judgment. The center is a place where girls can talk about sexuality, HIV/AIDS, menstrual hygiene, and reproductive health so that they may make informed decisions about their bodies. The center also provides a mentoring program for young girls and access to a library where they can spend their leisure time productively. Through donations from the Western Ohio Girl Scouts Association, the center has provided reusable sanitary towels to many of the girls and has provided menstrual hygiene classes and sanitary towels to several high schools in Karachuonyo.
Karachuonyo Safe Space for Young Women and Girls is driven by the mission to encourage girls to complete their education and become more aware of their potential. Educated women have better opportunities to earn higher incomes to lift their families out of poverty, and they raise healthier families by encouraging (and being able to afford) to practice good hygiene and nutrition. Educated women also value education for future generations and have more control over their sexuality. The resource center was intentionally established in a rural area to empower women who are often more disadvantaged than those living in urban areas where they have more access resources and information.
I owe thanks to so many for the success of this project. My host community in Ohio, led by former ACES local coordinator Valerie Virag, donated books, furniture, and sanitary supplies. My team member Alice Adikinyi Okello assisted and supported the project through her organization Bold Africa Foundation. The head teachers of local schools have been very understanding of the importance of mentorship and open discussions, and they facilitated our access to young girls in the area. We received tremendous help and encouragement from our local AFS office in Mombasa when applying for the YES Alumni Grant, which is funded by the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. Many thanks to you all, and be proud that Karachuonyo Resource Center will change and inspire the lives of many young girls.