• She was not always different, you know. She was once like me. An ordinary girl who grew up deep in Sabu, a small town in Kenya. We fetched water from the same river, carried it on our heads in the same way, had the same circle of friends, copied each other’s hairdo and went to the same school in our early years. The only difference between Santana and I was that she was a visionary. While she hated the idea of status quo, I found it easier to conform to it. Do not get me wrong, I was just as ambitious as Santana. I wanted to be a doctor. She wanted to be an engineer. But while she was progressive and revolutionary, I was reactionary.

    It all started when we were about to go through “the cut”— what is formally known today as female genital mutilation. Neither of us wanted it and we kept each other strong. As the day approached, my strength waned as hers waxed. I thought of the stigma I would face. I thought of my father’s fierce face. I thought of my life as a “rebel” and gave in; a decision I regret to date. Santana on the other hand thought of her dreams, her aspirations, her life goals and though disappointed and a bit taken aback by my failure of resolve, she stuck to the original plan and refused to go through the cut.

     

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    Credit: Women of Grace.

    As soon as I went through initiation, the ceremony that follows the cut, I was married off to my father’s friend and age-mate. That shut the door to my dream bus. I still have those dreams rooted in my heart but that’s the only place they’ll ever be. As for Santana, she was awarded a scholarship by a women’s empowerment organization that saw her through high school and later university. While in the program, she received mentorship and also went through several leadership training programs that shaped her life.

    I remember when Santana came back to Sabu, she was the icon of success. She had beat the odds. She was now a renowned engineer with the world at her feet. Confidence was oozing from her as she held a session with the women of the community. We now celebrate her as a leader in our community; something I never expected could be part of a “rebel’s” story.

    I share her story because her empowerment has changed our society. Had I had the courage to fight for my dreams, I would be bursting with energy and success as well. I speak for many women in Kenya and Africa. Through women empowerment, however, there is a paradigm shift in my community. Our girls are being educated on the shunning of retrogressive cultures, entrepreneurship, leadership as well as being mentored through life’s journey.

    As demonstrated by Santana’s life story, women empowerment instills confidence and nurtures a healthy sense of  self esteem which is essential for the achievement of goals as individuals and as nations. The economic development that our countries so far enjoy has been a result of a shift towards self belief and the empowerment of individuals. Women are now taking initiative to improve their own lives and their entrepreneurial minds will no doubt improve our economy. These empowered women are better able to contribute to the health and productivity of their families and thus improving the prospects for the next generation.

    Therefore, I cannot overstate the importance of empowering women. Going forward, I believe that our governments must to do more towards achieving this end. Stories like Santana’s show that some progress has been made, but there is still room for improvement. Governments should start programs aimed at instilling key income generating skills such as modern farming, sewing, etc. Microfinance organizations should also support women to start businesses by providing them with the necessary capital, in forms of loans. Also, to ensure that younger girls do not fall into the same vicious cycles of poverty as their mothers, school curricula should be designed in ways that ensure inclusiveness and equality between all genders.

    Lastly, women should also take the initiative to find ways of empowering themselves. They could do this by being more assertive, confident and developing self-reliance in decision making and problem solving. Society, however, still needs to help them in this regard.

    (Characters and places in this article are entirely fictitious but portray the realities many young girls are still facing in some remote African villages. Uche Pedro is the Founder of BellaNaija and 2013 Future Awards Africa Media Entrepreneur of the Year. We have used her photo as our header image to represent the successful Santana. Image Credit: NewsWireNGR)