The world celebrated the annual International Day of the Girl Child (Day of the Girl) that highlights issues concerning the gender inequality facing young girls yesterday.This year’s theme was ‘The Power of the Adolescent Girl: Vision for 2030’
Nothing wrecks the carefree time, universally associated with college, more than an unplanned pregnancy. While pregnancies take two to tango, no one suffers the brunt of the pregnancy more than the mother who is often left to her own devices as society watches her ‘reap what she sowed’.
Winfred Abuya was a first year student at Maseno University when something that changed the rest of her stay in university happened. One of her friends who had a toddler in school came back to her room to find her child badly burnt. According to Abuya, her friend had locked the infant in a room she had rented outside the school to attend one of her classes but forgot to safely store away a pot containing boiling water.
The child crawled up to the pot and, unfortunately, toppled it pouring the scalding water all over its body.
Before the incident, Abuya and her friend took turns tending to the toddler when either one of them was not attending a lecture. On that fateful day, however, they both had classes to attend. It was also not the first time that Abuya’s friend had left the child unattended for lack of money to enlist services of a caretaker. Hers is not an isolated case in the challenging life that student mothers lead. Apart from the grueling self-taught passage into motherhood, student mothers are forced to watch as a fun-filled lifetime ebbs away before their very eyes amid seclusion by their peers.
Those who find it difficult to enlist the services of a caretaker for their children resort to risky decisions like leaving their children unattended in the rooms they are forced to rent outside the university.
Sonia was a third year student at Maseno University when she became pregnant, a situation she says completely changed her life.
“No one had prepared me for pregnancy and I was surrounded by people who had absolutely no experience in pregnancy matters. I felt lost from the word go,” Sonia says. Sonia says it took her at least one month before she could reveal her state to her closest friends, fearing they would shun her.
“Suddenly, all the friends I had spent time with partying started looking at me differently as though I was no longer fit to hang out with them. Then there was a time when I was forced to depend on the Internet to study,” Sonia recounts of the countless days she spent locked away in her room after she gave birth because she had no one to take care of her child.
Sonia eventually enlisted the services of a caregiver for her child to allow her space for her demanding course. From her meagre scholarship allowance, Sonia says that she somehow managed to pay the caretaker as well as buy basic essentials.
“In university no one cares what a student mother goes through, not even the administration,” Sonia says of the challenges that student mothers go through.
The 22-year-old who completed her studies a month ago and is waiting to graduate explains that this is the reason that many student mothers fear to come out and seek help from their colleagues who have come up with an association to boost each other.
EmpowerHER is an initiative started at Maseno University to bring together pregnant students and student mothers who crave emotional and financial support.
Abuya, who founded the initiative says she developed an emotional nerve for expectant students in the university after her experience.
“It always broke my heart to see a student lock her two-day-old child in the room to attend her classes,” Abuya says. EmpowerHER came up with a daycare facility that brings together all student mothers who are unable to pay for the normal services of a house help.
She says that the mothers take shifts taking care of the children according to their class timetables so that whoever is free takes up the shift.
“In this way, we ensure that they don’t have to drop out of school by deferring for a year or two just to take care of their babies,” Abuya says.
Perhaps the most pressing challenge for student mothers, according to Abuya, is the lack of accommodation as most university administrations prohibit pregnant students from living inside the hostels when they reach the sixth month of their pregnancy.
“At the moment, we are negotiating with universities to make private arrangements to offer student mothers accommodation on better terms. This is because many hail from needy backgrounds and rely solely on government loans,” Abuya says.
To improve the economic power of pregnant students and student mothers, EmpowerHER equips them with hands-on skills to make ends meet. So far, this group is taught simple tasks like hair beauty, mat making and nail art to get the money they need to take care of their children.
Managed by a team of eight students, EmpowerHER helps women and girls to become agents of social and economic change through programmes on gender based violence and leadership incubation for women and girls looking to take up leadership positions in school.
“As an organising secretary on the student governing council, I was one of the only two female student leaders on the council of 45 and I knew many girls shied away from taking up the leadership positions even when they had potential to lead,” Abuya says.
She says that EmpowerHER is expanding to other universities and also targeting to work with counties that are characterised by a lot of teenage pregnancies.
Sonia, who represents all the student mothers in EmpowerHER now urges universities to embrace the initiative, the first ever to address the plight of pregnant students and student mothers.
“Universities should also budget for lactating rooms where student mothers can be guaranteed privacy while feeding their children,” Sonia says.