Mentoring Can Empower Girls in Slums

February 22, 2016

For two days in February, I was privileged to lend a hand to 139 girls from Nairobi’s Viwandani and Korogocho slums. These girls, who live precarious lives in difficult environments, were reaping the benefits of their hard work: Rather than ending their education in Standard Eight, they were off to secondary school, with a modest stipend to make that transition a bit easier.

The presentation ceremonies were the culmination of three years of research that had a simple hypothesis: we considered that giving girls after-school mentoring and coaching, as well as providing their parents with a forum to share concerns about raising daughters in the slums, would help the girls improve academically and shield them from some of the risks inherent in living in a compromised environment.

For over a year, the girls went to after-school sessions where they could do their homework, and talk with someone from the community about the challenges they faced in and out of the classroom: the pressure to be sexually active before they were ready; the threat of sexual violence; the impact of entrenched poverty; and the regular travails of adolescence.

Mentoring and coaching for the 1,000 girls enrolled in the study was provided by two community-based partners: U-Tena in Viwandani and Miss Koch in Korogocho. These two groups were instrumental in supporting the girls and their families, helping to form lasting relationships that the girls will rely on as they enter the next chapter of their academic lives.

And the results speak for themselves. We saw a clear improvement in girls’ marks in English and Maths, and even in other subjects where they did not receive coaching. We saw improved attendance in classes. And we heard from parents that the project – unlike many others – actually had an impact on their relationships with their daughters, their belief in education, and their entire household’s wellbeing.

“Before I joined the programme, I was a firm believer in the parable, ‘spare the rod, spoil the child,’” one tearful mother told me after the ceremony in Korogocho. “I thought the cane was the only means of discipline. I didn’t know that this was putting a strain on my relationship with my daughter.


She began to resent me. But after attending parental counselling sessions within this project, I realised that I need to talk and listen to my daughter. I’m glad that she not only got good grades, but we have become friends.”

There have been a number of unanticipated results. The parents involved in the counselling sessions have told us that they have shared some of the messages with their friends and neighbours, generating a community-wide impact on how to positively interact with children and teens.

“The project was a golden opportunity and it is good that every girl embraced it,” said Mr Jack Mbiso, the Assistant Commissioner for Makadara sub-county. So now, what happens next? What we realised was that while girls are especially at risk of dropping out of school and vulnerable to predatory behaviour, boys are by no means immune to outside influences that can also compromise their education. As we prepare to begin the next phase in April 2016, I am thrilled that we are expanding the slate to include boys aged 12, and their families.

The exciting thing about this research is that it showed that despite the multiple challenges of living in a slum environment, dreams can still flourish and access to education can still be a reality. It also showed that families want to provide as much support as they can to their daughters — they just need to have the tools to do so.

With support and encouragement from their families and communities, these girls have opened themselves to new opportunities. We owe it to all girls, and boys, to help them find such opportunities for themselves and hope that the development of public school curriculums in Kenya will incorporate some of the lessons learned from our approach.