Empowering Kenyan Girls to Overcome Poverty

This guest post from the Grassroots Girls Initiative shares the voices of girls from Fortress of Hope Africa, a nonprofit organization that AJWS supports in Nairobi, Kenya.

The Situation for Girls

Growing up among rampant poverty, crime and few opportunities for employment, adolescents and young people make up a significant proportion of the populations in Nairobi’s slums. Girls are significantly more likely to be out of school than boys and are more at risk of violence.

The Organic Solution

In 2006, Fortress of Hope Africa was opened to provide a safe space within the slum to socially and economically empower disadvantaged girls, train them as leaders and support them in developing and implementing their own program ideas. The girls of Fortress are continuing to grow their own organic solutions that include a dance crew, street theater performances promoting gender equality and weekly workshops on self-esteem, health and hygiene and sexual and reproductive rights.

Safe Space to Build Self Confidence


“I had no self-esteem. If someone took my book at school I couldn’t get it back. I would just go home and cry. My past is not good. I hated looking at myself in the mirror. I avoided mirrors: It felt bad,” says Rose Mumbua, 22, about her life just four years ago.

Growing up in Kenya without a father and with a sick mother, the responsibility of caring for her five siblings often fell on Rose. She washed clothes for families in her community and received scraps that would otherwise be thrown to the chickens. “It wasn’t that nice, but we didn’t have other food,” sighs Rose, “so we just take it.” Everyday was a constant scramble for school fees, food and clothes. And those weren’t even Rose’s biggest worries.

In Rose’s slum, sexual violence against adolescent girls is almost as pervasive as poverty:

“Where I stay there is a big, open ground and bad people gather there—rapists, men with knives. I can’t talk on my phone or they would take it and harm me. Sometimes we hear people screaming and we run out and see them taking a girl and I say they are definitely going to rape her,” says Rose, cupping her forehead in her hands. “I am always looking at my back. If there are boys coming, we cross the street. If there is a lot of them and we are passing they will touch us everywhere and it is so bad and we feel bad.”

Indeed, the threat of violence in the slum is palpable. After spending some time in the Fortress office and classroom, the girls take me on a tour of the area, including a visit to a Fortress participant’s house. Before we leave, the girls tell me to put my camera inside the camera bag. Then they put the camera bag in an old shopping bag and insist it’s safer for one of the girls to carry the bag. A foreigner is an easy target. Knowing there’s safety in numbers, we walk in a tight group, me in the middle, to Monica’s house. Several groups of young men are hanging out in the alleyways, eyes following us as we walk quickly by. Rose and a few girls sit outside as Monica and her sister show me the one room they share with their mom. I snap a few photos, then the camera goes back in the shopping bag and into a girl’s hand as we return to Fortress’ office. Once we’re back, the girls relax and we start talking and laughing again.

Rose tells me that she used to think all nonprofits, including Fortress, only trained people on HIV prevention, and she wasn’t interested in joining. “But then I was invited by a friend to a Fortress team building exercise and I saw all these girls from different groups. They told me that it’s not just HIV information, but also self-esteem building, so I became interested,” she explains. Once at Fortress, Rose quickly became a leader, training and mobilizing the girls to transform their community into a safer place. Rose and other leaders are at the Fortress office and safe space during the week to engage girls and offer one-on-one mentoring. On Saturdays, the girl leaders run their workshops for all girls in the community on topics like self-esteem, health and hygiene and sexual and reproductive rights.

During one training, the girls were asked who their role model is. “Five of the girls said, ‘Rose, you are our role model.’ It felt so good that the girls will come to me, to help them solve their problems,” says Rose. “I want to study psychology to help more girls open up and find the courage they need to stand up against violence. I have already gotten somewhere with the help of Fortress, but I could go much, much further.”


Organic solutions are growing at Fortress of Hope Africa, but more resources are needed. Rose and the girls of Fortress want to know:

What are some engaging activities or games we can use to boost the self-esteem and confidence of girls so we can stand up against sexual and physical violence?

Help seed the change by posting your answer at Growing Organic Solutions for Girls! Your answer will not only help Fortress of Hope Africa, but it could be worth US$2,000 for this group.

Lydia Holden is communications lead for the Grassroots Girls Initiative.