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Unleashing Girls' Power: An Interview With Kennedy Odede

28/04/2015 15:36 BST | Updated 27/06/2015 10:59 BST

Unleashing Girls' Power: An Interview with Kennedy Odede.

At the end of the invigorating and stimulating three day Skoll World Forum I met with Kennedy Odede, founder of Shining Hope for Communities, (SHOFCO) and Kibera School for Girls. Our meeting was inspiring and poignant and echoed many themes I had heard throughout the conference regarding the importance of girl's education. It seems fitting that I tie my interview with Kennedy to these issues in this article.

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Kennedy Odede grew up in Kibera, Africa's largest urban slum, located just outside of Nairobi, Kenya. At age ten he was homeless but the motivation and strength his mother faced life with helped shape the man he is today. Kennedy told me his mother 'worked hard, faced and overcame many challenges and stood strong'. The fact that women were not respected in his community and the might of his mother influenced him to recognize the power and importance of women in every society, and influenced him to lead a life of empowering, educating and investing in girls. As in Kennedy's own words, 'when you educate a woman, you educate the entire community'. Martin Luther King Jr's biography fuelled Kennedy further and gave him 'hope' and whilst working in a gasoline factory at age 16, earning $1 for ten hours, he managed to save and buy a football and start Shining Hope for Communities.

At twenty-three years old Kennedy received a scholarship to study Sociology at Wesleyan University in America. With the vision of founding a school for girls in Kibera Kennedy managed to win a $10,000 A Hundred Project for Peace grant from Wesleyan and upon his return he founded Kibera School for Girls in 2009. Today the school has three-hundred pupils and goes up to 6th grade. To begin with, most of the teachers were from Kibera and worked for free, willing to give back to their community, now they are paid. However, Kennedy knew that founding the school was not enough to change the mindset of those in his community regarding girl's education. Kennedy recognized that men had to embrace and support the school as well in order for it to thrive, for the girls to feel safe, and for the subordination of women in Kibera to cease. Despite Kennedy's already amazing and inspiring achievements he tells me, 'deep growth and broader growth' is the way forward. As a result he is extending the schooling of Kibera School for Girls to 8th grade, in October 2014 he opened a school in the slum of Mathare, which has one-hundred pupils, and he plans to keep expanding until he has schools in many areas of Kenya, Ngong is apparently a front runner for his next school. Kennedy's ultimate goal is to change the patriarchal mentality of men towards girls' education and empowerment and to keep expanding his work beyond Kenya and into other African countries where the importance of girls' education is routinely ignored.

Kennedy's path however has not been easy and he tells me the issue of funding has been a continuous challenge, something that affects his vision for Kibera School for girls and undoubtedly his plans for expansion. Due to this, Kennedy has to travel regularly which he says is a setback as he'd prefer to be 'on the ground at the school' but must travel to network and raise awareness of the school in order to raise funds.

I asked Kennedy about his opinion on the position of women in Kenya. He told me he is inspired and happy to see an increase of women obtaining political positions within the Kenyan government. He hopes these women are an inspiration to his girls in Kibera and would like them to see these powerful women as mentors. This led me to ask him what advice he gives his pupils in Kibera School for Girls. He tells me he is 'very proud of them, they have proven that anything is possible. I would never force them into jobs they do not want' but he hopes that their schooling will create opportunities and chances for them, opening the door to many more choices in their lives than they would have without an education. With regards to girls in Kibera who are not in school Kennedy said it is important to find out and understand why and then how to get them into education.

The Skoll World Forum brings together hundreds of social entrepreneurs from around the world and clearly Kennedy is definitely one the most inspiring! I asked him to describe to me how he views himself as a social entrepreneur. He told me his approach is 'organic and driven by challenges but there are many opportunities in the challenges'. He is a strong believer that human rights and social justice are key to bringing about gender equality and that social entrepreneurs need to collaborate to ensure human rights issues are tackled as well as gender equality issues such as equal pay. In this vein, Kennedy sees himself as a 'social revolutionary' a key actor in bringing about this change. He advises other social entrepreneurs seeking to help his cause to 'invest in education itself, and quality of education', and to 'take advantage of technology' which he sees is 'revolutionary in the education system'.

I would like to relate my conversation with Kennedy to the wider context of women's education and draw on the stimulating panel discussion, at the Skoll World Forum aptly named, Unleashing Girls' Power. The panelists were; Graca Machel, renowned international advocate for women's and children's rights and founder of Graca Machel Trust; Mabel van Oranje, founder of Girls Not Brides; Lucy Lake, Chief Executive Officer of Camfed; Rebecca Winthrop, Director of Center for Universal Education; and Memory Banda, Let Girls Lead representative of the Girls Empowerment Network.

The importance of education and in particular literacy for girls resonated throughout the discussion. If a girl is literate and has an education a whole ripple effect is sparked as she can get a job, have an income which can sustain herself and her family, be financially independent from men and have confidence and independence in herself. Statistics show that for every year of quality schooling, women's earnings increase by 10-20% as well as a reduce in child mortality rates. Though this ripple effect is encouraging, it is undeniable that even if this did not happen, investing in girls' education should be deemed just as important as boys' education. We have to ask ourselves then, why do so many NGO's and social enterprises push for primary education but not so many for secondary, especially as the advantages of having a secondary education are superior to just a primary one. Statistics show that in Western Africa and the Middle East there are less than 85 girls in secondary education for every 100 boys. There are many reasons for this due to the social, political and economic context of the societies, for example in places where child marriage is routinely practiced, or where girls are expected to invest their time in household chores and looking after the family and any livestock. In Malawi for example, 15% of young girls became mothers compared to 27% of similar aged girls who had not gone to school. Conversely, in some Latin American countries, the ratio of girls to boys enrolled in secondary education is reversed. Reasons for this include the high amount of boys involved in gangs, as well as the pull of economically satisfying jobs for young men. Whilst sitting in the panel discussion I took note of who else was present. Unlike other discussions I had been to at the Skoll World Forum, the number of women present was significantly higher than men attendees. This is part of the problem. Women are generally not the ones subjugating other women and denying girls education, it is men, and we need to encourage men to go to these talks and educate themselves about the struggles girls face with regards to gender inequality and access to education. I hope that Kennedy is an inspiration to men as women's empowerment and education isn't just a female issue, it's a mans issue too.

Lucy Lake contended that there are three main factors influencing girl's enrolment in education; power; money; and sex. She asserted that all those in power need to come together to find solutions for the issue of gender inequality and actively work together to get girls into school. The people holding positions of power not only include governments, but also those working in education, healthcare, law enforcement and traditional leaders in the communities. With regards to money, governments need to be made accountable for the issue of schooling and the gender difference in enrolment. They should also secure the resources necessary to ensure girls education beyond primary school. A main monetary problem is the cost associated with sending girls to secondary school and above. Many families reserve their funds to pay for their son's educations over their daughters' and obviously this mindset needs to be seriously addressed and changed, although this of course may take some time. Other issues include the fact that many secondary schools are much farther away from the girls' homes which not only costs money to get there but also pose a heightened safety risk. This ties in to the matter of sex. Many girls have little choice but to partake in transactional sex either to pay for their school fees or to help get them to school or pay for transportation there and back. This also leads to the risk of sexually transmitted diseases as well as pregnancies, which could result in the girl withdrawing from education and entering into child marriage and motherhood.

I think another factor should be addressed, and that is the role of parents. Many have not been to secondary school themselves and so are disempowered from the system. Equally if we regard parents as our first teachers, parents should be treating their children equally, regardless of gender so that their children are not influenced by stereotypical gender roles and ideologies that result in sons being the more privileged and favoured child. I think what Kennedy is trying to do about changing men's mindset in Kibera will greatly aid this. Graca Machel's statements correlated with this as she affirmed that fathers' and traditional leaders' mindsets need to change. She argued that 'we focus too much on institutions, yet at the end of the day it is the mother and fathers decision to keep their daughter in education'. Thus, Graca is advocating first for a change in the family, and then in the community. Traditional leaders have the responsibility of protecting the people whom they are leading, and this includes the protection of their girls and their right to an education. Graca argues that when a girl is educated she can 'affirm and assert herself' and 'if someone tries to put her down, she can respond with "I know that I can"', something that unquestionably Kennedy hopes for his students.

Rebecca Winthrop stressed that there are five issues which need to be addressed regarding girls' education. The first, access to schools, and ensuring that once enrolled, girls remain in education. The second, addressing the safety of girls receiving an education, think of the atrocity of the Boko Haram kidnappings. Their safety on their journeys to and from school need to be addressed as well. The third issue is quality of learning, ensuring that they are receiving the best education possible from qualified teachers. The fourth issue is addressing and helping girls in the transition period between secondary and higher education, and education and getting jobs. The fifth issue regards country leaders; they must come together and make education for girls and boys not just an international priority, but the norm.

So, what do the panelists hope for in the future and what do they see as the next steps to take towards gender equality and education for girls? Just as Kennedy's work confronts men in his society about the importance of educating girls, the panelists agree that more needs to be done regarding parents' teaching skills to their children aged 0-3. Additionally, more needs to be done about girls with disabilities, who are often marginalized further in society and invisible in the education system. Machel contends that many women in the communities that she works in are 'drowning in the informal economy' and how to get them into the formal economy is of great concern. New initiatives need to be found to unite governments, funders, communities and social entrepreneurs to engage in the issue of gender inequality and girls' access to education. I contend that if there are more women in the justice and education systems within governments, the matters of women's rights and girls' education will be faced more fervently and quickly. Lake distinguishes between the 'girls' education movement' and the 'girls' rights movement', she says that the two need to be aligned and that the energy and power of social entrepreneurs needs to be fused with with the knowledge and expertise of those working in the girls education movement.

Kennedy, as a social entrepreneur founded his own school, yet there are many schools established by international development agencies. The panelists were all wary however of the development agencies habits of changing agendas very quickly. Rebecca Winthrop coined this the 'flash mob movement'; education may be at the top of their agenda at one moment but if something they deem more important were to suddenly crop up, their attention would turn to that. The same can be said for funders, which is obviously a huge and consequential problem. After all, how can you take away a girl's right to education because your school no longer has enough funding to keep it running? Machel contended that if you are committed to 'working for a cause such as girls' education or child marriage, you need to be prepared to work on this issue for the next 30-40 years'; this is not a quick fix.