Empowering Adolescent Girls to Thrive in Northern Kenya’s Economy
In Northern Kenya, adolescent girls (ages 10-19) face myriad pressures that prevent them from realizing their full potential. Early and forced marriages, teen pregnancy, violence, female genital mutilation, and heavy work burdens are some of the challenges they face. A 2014 Kenya Demographic and Health survey found that 15 percent of women ages 20-49 had their first sexual intercourse by age 15, 50 percent by age 18, and 71 percent by age 20. In 2016, an evaluation conducted by Mercy Corps found that 50 percent of women ages 20-49 were married before age 19, while 20 percent of girls ages 15-19 already had at least one child.
As a result of early and arranged marriages, the education and learning of many girls in the region are affected, leading to significant school dropout rates. Women are further encumbered by cultural practices and beliefs that prevent them from owning property. They are unable to access credit due to a lack of collateral and, therefore, are greatly disadvantaged as participants within local market systems.
GIRL program empowers adolescent girls to succeed
To address these issues, the Girls Improving Resilience through Livelihoods (GIRL) model, part of the USAID-funded Feed the Future Kenya Livestock Market Systems (LMS) Activity, promotes the inclusion of adolescent girls in market systems through the nine-month GIRL safe space program. The program equips participants with literacy, numeracy, and life skills (knowledge of reproductive health, nutrition, financial literacy, business skills) that enable them to become more engaged within the local markets.
With the knowledge they acquire, the girls make decisions on their transition pathways to improving their lives. Some go back to primary or secondary school, pursue vocational training aligned to their career, and later access financing to purchase stock. Other girls keep clear and concise records for their small businesses, making their enterprises more competitive in the marketplace. The girls who transition directly to businesses are those with additional responsibilities, such as taking care of their own children. They often have no one to leave their children with so they could go back to school. However, more than 30 percent of girls transition through the education pathway.
With two children and opportunities for unskilled work few and far between, life was extremely difficult until I joined the GIRL program. Since then, my life has changed for the better. I am now able to provide for my young family much easier than before. I now buy clothes from Meru and come to sell at Isiolo, and I also buy and sell livestock. Despite dropping out of school due to [a] lack of school fees, I have now enrolled for a tailoring course.
– Antonella Lobei, a GIRL program participant who married at age 14
Following the training, groups of 25 girls form to support one another and sustain program learnings amongst themselves. The community appoints an LMS-trained mentor to oversee the groups. The LMS Activity continues to work with the groups, allowing them to register as self-help groups with the national government’s social services and to open a group bank account. By registering, the groups can access loans and grants for their businesses, which include livestock trading, cereal selling, farming, and tailoring.
Atir girl group: An exemplar of success
One such successful group is the Atir Girl Group in Isiolo County. The group has 25 members, ages 15 to 19. Of them, 84 percent already have one child — an indication of the vulnerabilities these girls face.
Through the LMS Activity, group members participated in the GIRL safe space program. Upon completion, the group received 13 goats. (Two girls shared one goat.) The girls sell goat milk and, when the goats give birth, they sell the kids and generate income. With this income, some group members started small businesses, most selling consumables, such as sugar, salt, and maize flour from home.
As the group continued to save, the LMS Activity connected them with the Women Enterprise Fund, overseen by the Kenyan government. Through the fund, the Atir Girl Group accessed a loan of KES 100,000 (about USD 1,000). The group identified members with viable business ideas and granted them funds from the loan. At the same time, members started onion farming. Through their hard work, they made a profit of KES 40,000 (about USD 400) from their first harvest. Additionally, six group members pursued vocational training in tailoring, and three girls pursued formal education.
Since 2018, in Isiolo County, the LMS Activity has taken 750 girls through the GIRL program, with the second cohort of 750 ongoing. Across the other four counties in which the LMS Activity operates — Turkana, Wajir, Garissa, and Marsabit — 8,577 girls have taken part in the program. Many have started a range of businesses, from selling cereals in the market to kiosks, retailing consumables and food, and even selling livestock. LMS plans to train 16,500 adolescent girls before the project’s completion in fall 2022. Through this program, adolescent girls have the opportunity to earn an income for their families, becoming active market participants as they rise out of poverty.
The Feed the Future Kenya Livestock Market Systems Activity is a USAID-funded program. Under the Strengthening Community Capacities Activity, implemented by Mercy Corps, the project equips more marginalized individuals and communities with skills, resources, and awareness to benefit from the Expanding Economic Opportunities activities.