An Island Where Change is Possible: How Mentorship is Transforming a Community in Kenya
On an island just north of mainland Kenya — where the soft sound of crashing waves rocks fishermen to sleep as they make their days-long journey across the lake’s surface in hand-carved canoes — girls sit together and laugh. They take care of their siblings. And draw, and play, and sing. And while these simple, everyday acts may seem ordinary, they’re actually quite extraordinary, given the circumstances.
In Homa Bay County, which encompasses Mfangano Island, not many girls will have the opportunity to live the life they dream of. A third of all adolescent girls (age 15 – 19) are mothers or pregnant with their first child. Two-thirds will get married before their 18th birthday. Financial desperation leads many to sell their bodies to afford basic necessities. This prevalent practice of “sex for fish” has led to the county having the second highest rate of new HIV and AIDs transmissions in all of Kenya.
Despite these extreme challenges, each day girls sing because they know that change is possible. It’s made possible by people like Helen who tell them that their voices matter.
This is the story of a mentor — and the girls whose lives she is transforming.
“I See Myself in These Girls”: Helen’s Story
For Helen, growing up on Mfangano Island meant constant struggle. Most days there was not enough food at home. She vividly remembers wearing the same pair of shoes for four years, using cardboard to patch up the holes. Given the high poverty level of the region, her school uniform was her most prized possession.
“The vulnerability of these girls is so high. Realizing their future goals is nearly impossible.”
“As a young girl, you were seen as property to be sold off for early marriage once you reached puberty. Education was meant for boys,” says Helen. “Girls were restricted to household chores: doing laundry, going to the farm, and looking for food. The farthest a girl might go is primary school. But I knew what I wanted and what I was working towards.”
Helen became one of the few girls on the island who was able to complete secondary school. Not only that, she went on to University and on to have a successful career with a leading media company on mainland Kenya. But it wasn’t long before she felt a calling to return to the island to support the girls who could have been her.
“The vulnerability level of these girls is so high,” says Helen. “Realizing their future goals is nearly impossible. I wanted to come back to show them that it’s possible to defy the odds, to tell them that their dreams are valued.”
Helen became a GLOW Club mentor and began coordinating small-group safe spaces where local girls could openly discuss the challenges they face and learn how to advocate for themselves.
In GLOW Club, Helen facilitates dialogues on sexual and reproductive health, bodily autonomy, healthy relationships, self expression, and other Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) skills that equip girls to make responsible decisions and build a brighter future for themselves.
Over time, she has noticed a change in the girls: they are becoming more bold, more comfortable expressing themselves, and more willing to share their dreams with each other.
“This program has given these girls a platform for empowerment. It’s been an eye-opener that has allowed them to believe in themselves. Once timid, they are now in a position to advocate for other girls in the community. We are seeing the change, and it is huge. Even parents are coming together to have a mentorship in the lives of their daughters. People are changing, and embracing the change.”
Helen is proud of her ability to leave the island – to finish college and pursue a successful career. But to her, the accomplishment she is most proud of is coming back home.
“This program has given these girls a platform for empowerment. We are seeing the change, and it is huge.”
“I share my story with the girls because I know that my story is not an exception,” says Helen. “I see a bright future for these girls. I see independent girls on a developed island. I see zero tolerance for gender-based violence. And I see an empowered generation of girls who can advocate for their needs and the needs of others.”
“No Matter What, Speak Out”: Linet’s Story
Much like Helen, 16-year-old Linet grew up intimately aware of the limitations placed on girls and women in Homa Bay County. As a child, she witnessed gender-based violence in her community that was so severe, the resulting trauma caused her to withdraw from others.
“I couldn’t be where other people were,” says Linet. “ I felt ashamed and wanted just to be alone. My problems were a burden to me: like very heavy luggage.”
But after joining Helen’s GLOW Club and having the opportunity to interact with other girls her age in a safe, supportive environment, Linet came to realize that her life experiences were nothing to be ashamed of.
“Having a safe space made me feel relieved,” says Linet. “At last I could speak out [my problems], and I was helped. I felt free. The luggage was finally removed from me.”
Feeling empowered to use her voice to advocate for herself completely transformed Linet. She realized that by speaking out against the gender-based violence she witnessed, she was helping other girls who may have experienced similar situations. Ultimately, she realized that she could not only speak up for herself, but for others as well.
“The world can be better if all girls speak out.”
“I feel like a superhero. I never talked to anyone, but I found out that I can speak in front of others. I have helped so many girls in my community already. Sometimes I collect my peers and encourage them and tell them to speak out about their challenges. The world can be better if all girls speak out. There would be no violation and no gender-based violence.”
In recognition of her advocacy work, Linet was elected by her peers to serve as the Youth Gender-Based Violence Representative for Homa Bay County. In her role, she collaborates with other youth representatives from across the country and works directly with government leadership to advocate against gender-based violence, sexual violation, teen pregnancy, and the spread of HIV/AIDS. She speaks directly with girls in her community to let them know that they have a right to advocate for themselves.
She hopes to one day become a GLOW Club mentor just like Helen.
“In my community, girls face a lot of challenges. I want to help them cope with their problems: to show them that every problem has a solution no matter how hard it is. Speaking out is what helped me. I want to encourage other girls to do the same.”
Linet is just one of the 150 GLOW Club members across three island schools in Homa Bay County whose life is being transformed by Helen’s mentorship. This January, National Mentoring Month, we honor Helen and her selfless dedication to creating a better future for girls in her community. We know that mentors like Helen are absolutely essential in empowering girls to realize that only one person can determine their future: themselves.
Global G.L.O.W. mentors girls around the world to become powerful advocates and confident leaders. Since inception, our GLOW Clubs have ignited the power of over 91,000 girls to do 3 transformative things: increase their confidence, strengthen their voice, and build their power. This Mentoring Month, support incredible GLOW Club mentors like Helen at globalgirlsglow.org/donate.
This transformation story has been made possible through our collaboration with the Women’s Initiative in Education Network (NEWI), who coordinate GLOW Clubs for almost 1300 girls across Kenya. We would like to extend a special thanks to GLOW Club Coordinator Levina Ondeng’e and Assistant GLOW Club Coordinator Hellen Wagaluka for their tireless efforts to empower girls through education.