“The first time I was raped, I was 9,” Caroline told me as we sat side by side on a broken branch in the mud. The first time. I couldn’t turn to face her. All I could do was give her space to talk, while I listened…
“It’s the bathrooms that are most dangerous. We try not to go unless it’s urgent. Even then, we can shit in a bag and throw it outside. We have learned how to protect ourselves”.
Caroline told her story, while we sat in the dirt side by side on the small step leading to her hut in Kibera, the largest slum in Kenya, if not the world. An open sewer ran by the hut. Children played in the rubbish around the slum — most not wearing any pants. They kicked a Coke can around and laughed. An emaciated goat looked on.
I tried to focus on the can and the shuffling of little bare feet in the dirt. Concentrate. Don’t cry. It doesn’t help. But I really wanted to find a private place to cry — next to impossible in an overcrowded slum.
“Girls are raped because they don’t have underwear,” Caroline continued. “It just makes things easier for men”.
Her elbows poked through the holes in the sweater she wore as a dress. She wasn’t wearing any shoes, and I suddenly wanted to use my too-solid hiking boots to clear the soda tabs from her patch of dirt. I could feel grimy sweat rolling down my neck into the collar of my t-shirt. I wished it would rain.
“Everyone calls me Caro”, she added.
It was Mercy who led me to Kibera — and to Caro. “How much,” I asked her. “Just tell me how much it will take”.
I left Kenya the next day, leaving my remaining cash and the contents of my suitcase behind for Mercy to give to Caro and other girls.
That was 2007. I’ve been supporting and advocating for the Girl Child Network ever since.
When I met Mercy, the Network provided for the basic needs of 40 girls in the slum. Most were HIV-positive. Most had survived rape — at least once. And most had undergone genital cutting. And yet they were filled with power and courage — and still able to laugh. Mercy’s Girl Child Network had been raising money for years to build a safe haven for girls just like Caro.
The Network supports girls to stay in school and builds leadership skills through after-school activities. Once, Mercy noticed that the girls were missing up to a week of school a month because they did not have sanitary supplies. And so she found a way to raise money to distribute pads. And then she noticed that the girls did not even have underwear. And so Mercy found a way to provide that too.
When I met Caro, she did not have the time to participate in the Network or to think about school.
Caro left school to care for her parents, who both died of AIDS when she was 10.
“If I could, I would teach one day”, she told me. “I feel like I have been teaching all my life”.
I left Kibera — and Kenya — committed to helping the Girl Child Network continue to support girls like Caro. And I supported Caro as well, paying for her education and whatever else I could in order to give her a chance to become whatever she wanted, to make her own choices, to control her own life.
In a slum of over 1 million people, helping one girl doesn’t feel like much. But I wasn’t going to leave until I helped one girl.
Mercy founded the Network because she herself is a survivor of violence. “I was 12 when I experienced gender-based violence,” she told me. “No girl should ever have to go through this. For me, it was my school principal. He was married and in his 50s. And I was a student. A child. I only wanted to learn.”
Mercy understands all too well how important it is to ensure that schools are safe. And how no one, or nothing, should get in the way of a girl’s right to learn.
She continued: “It is always older men who take advantage of young, innocent girls. Girls who have no role models or mentors to empower or support them.”
These girls now have Mercy. They cannot ask for a better mentor. Or a stronger champion.
Since its beginnings, the Network has supported girls to attend school and take control of their futures.
We all know the benefits of education — especially for girls. In Kenya, one in four girls is married before her eighteenth birthday. But if she finishes secondary school, she becomes six times less likely to marry young. If she does not marry young, she has a better chance of being healthy and engaging in paid work. Educated mothers are much more likely to educate their children — especially their daughters. In short, the spillover effects of education are massive.
The Girl Child Network takes its work seriously. In over two decades, the Girl Child Network has enrolled more than 550,000 children in primary school, trained 27,141 members of its community to become advocates for girls education and other marginalized children, and founded 815 Rights of Child Clubs, clubs that teach children about their rights — and how to defend them. We can’t demand what we don’t understand.
It doesn’t stop there. The Network built over 250 toilet blocks and 100 water tanks, because Mercy knows what it means for girls to have safe access to bathrooms — and what happens when they don’t.
The Network also has over ten centers that work with children with disabilities, to ensure that they too get the support and resources they need.
Unsurprisingly, the Girl Child Network has received a range of awards for their work. Most recently, the Network received the UNESCO Prize for Girls’ and Women’s Education in 2020.
Little Caro went on to study accounting — and she is now an accountant. She is not so little anymore — Caro is married and has two children, one is a girl. Caro started teaching her daughter about the risks of abuse when she was just three years old. They live in an area where abuse of young girls is all too common. But no girl should have to be raised in fear.
Caro teaches her daughter about her rights and how to protect herself, and she also teaches other girls in the community, working as a mentor and support for girls — just as Mercy taught her.
The Girl Child Network changed Caro’s life. It has changed the lives of so many children. And it changed my life too.
Many more girls need help. The Network believes in education as the best way to empower children and reduce their risk of violence. They fight for schools as safe spaces with the belief that a day spent in school reduces vulnerabilities and enhances growth.
The Network works for girls and boys — and for communities — to rise, claim their rights, and assert their freedoms. If you are looking for a way to make a difference in the world, this is it.
Get involved here.
And Mercy, she told me her wish — her fight — is for us all to support every girl, ensuring that she grows to become an empowered woman who is able to make positive decisions and speak her mind and exercise her full potential.
What do you want people to do, I ask her?
“Tell them this,” she said, firmly. “Tell them they must leave NO GIRL behind.”
Because, we all should put girls first.