Gladys Makena Kaaria graduated as a nurse in 2016 and currently works at AIC Kijabe Hospital. Immediately after graduating, a friend recommended that she apply for a job at an organization that was hiring professional nurses to work in an upcoming programme.
Bethel is an organization that helps reach vulnerable girls and empowers them with education about reproductive health. Together with P&G, they run the “Always Keeping girls in school” programme that provides girls with sanitary towels. Gladys’ confident and outgoing personality makes her perfect for the job as she is required to relate with girls from different environments and backgrounds.
2020 marks Gladys’ fifth year in the programme and she says that she plans to continue helping girls for as long as she can. We spoke to her about some of the projects she has done and how she is able to find a balance between her job at the hospital and her responsibilities at the programme.
How did you join the Always Keeping Girls in School Programme?
A friend of mine knew I was confident and good in public speaking, so he suggested that I try my luck at getting a job in the Bethel Network. I met Mary who is the founder of the organization and also a nurse herself. She had approached P&G with the idea of the programme and they agreed to sponsor and support it.
I remember being late for the interview and the first thing I did was to apologise to Mary. A huge part of the job description was your ability to communicate and relate with other people. Mary felt that if I was honest enough to admit I was in fault, then I had the intelligence to deal with the diversity of the girls in the programme. I sent my CV and nursing council license and just like that, I was ready for training.
How long is the training process and what does it entail?
The training goes for two days. Because we are all professional nurses, we are already conversant with the human anatomy and medical part of the programme. The training is more about learning basic life skills and improving communication skills. We are taught how to be better listeners and to decode nonverbal cues.
Then we are given a script which basically guides us on what to say to the girls when we visit them at school. We start by introducing ourselves, the products, then moving on to train the girls about life skills, hygiene, puberty and menstrual health. The script is important because it helps you stick to the issues that you are supposed to discuss without digressing.
After training, did you go to the field immediately?
After the training process, the nurses have to do a presentation in front of the supervisors. The nurse is expected to follow the provided script from start to end and the supervisors assess the performance and decide whether or not the nurse is ready to start working. Everything has to work perfectly within the prescribed guidelines.
What do you like most about the Always Keeping Girls in School Programme?
The programme reaches girls who would have otherwise been unreachable. We go to schools where girls have absolutely no means of accessing sanitary towels. The fact that I get to play a role in shaping girls and moulding them into confident young women is very fulfilling.
We find girls with low self-esteem who are too shy to even speak for themselves but once they go through the training they come out as all-rounded people with self-confidence and ability to understand interpersonal relationships, goal setting and assertiveness. What I like most about the programme is being a part of the moulding process.
In your five years at the programme, what are the challenges that most of the girls’ face?
It depends on where the school is located. Girls in Nairobi don’t have the same challenges as girls in Muran’ga. For instance, it is rare to find cases of early marriages or FGM in the urban areas, but they are more prevalent in the more rural, interior areas. I have worked in Nairobi, Kiambu and Muran’ga.
In Nairobi, we find that girls engage in sexual activity quite early and this leads to them dropping out of school because of pregnancies. The girls in Nairobi are quite confident and they are vocal about almost all issues. In areas such as Muran’ga, the girls lack empowerment and education. They can be quite reserved and are shy to ask or answer questions. You learn to adjust your approach according to where you are and the crowd you are in interaction with.
How many schools have you visited so far and how often do you make your visits?
In Nairobi, I have 6-10 ten schools that I need to attend to, the number of girls depends on the school, sometimes I have sixty girls in one class, other times I will have even 200 girls. We dedicate two visits a year to each school. First in the first term and then the second term. We give the girls pads to last them the entire year. Each girl is given nine packets a year. We teach them how to use the pads conservatively so that they do not run out.
Do you have any programme available for the boys?
We realized that empowering just the girl was not enough because as soon as they went back to class, the boys would still mock them for getting periods and point out how their bodies were changing. So, we decided to have a more integrated programme where boys also get to learn about their own changes during adolescence and how their reproductive systems relates to the girls. Most importantly, they are taught basic life skills that mould them to become fine young men in future.
Does the programme go beyond our Kenyan borders or is it just local?
This year we started branching out to other countries because P&G felt like girls in neighbouring countries likely experience the same challenges as the ones in Kenya. In January we visited Uganda and brought in some girls in the programme and later also went to Ethiopia. It slowly going beyond borders and impacting young lives at a more international level.
With all this going on, how do you balance your work at the hospital and at the programme?
I am so passionate about helping the girls because I want to make sure that they grow up to become mature, confident ladies. That being said, I have to find a way to make things work so I plan my schedule to fit in with my day job. We work for 14-15 days a month for the programme, so I use my days off or take a leave. That way I can train the girls and still be in a position to do my job effectively.
What is the biggest change you notice in the girls once they go through the programme?
We deal with girls in class seven and eight. When we begin training, we normally enquire about the girls’ academic performances and also ask the teachers about their observations concerning the girls and how they participate in class. In most cases, the girls start off very shy and unwilling to raise their hand in class to ask or answer questions. They are average performers with not many of them clinching top positions. After the training, we start to notice that the girls’ confidence grows significantly. They are more eager to communicate and express themselves.
This growth also spreads to their academic work. We have seen girls top the exams whereas just a few months ago they were nowhere near the top. Most importantly, girls are staying in school, cases of early pregnancies have reduced by a big margin and the girls are now so aware and assertive of themselves. All this shows that we are doing good and important work. All the girls need is someone to support and reassure them that they can be anything they want to be.
How long do you intend to remain in the programme?
Now more than ever, I hope to be a part of the programme for as long as possible. As I said, we have started venturing out to places beyond Kenya and we get to explore other surroundings and cultures. I see this as a good learning experience to add to the information I already have while discovering new ways on how to train the girls. In Ethiopia, we were exposed to a lot of cases of early marriages as it is so common there. We can take that information and put it into perspective while training girls back at home.
What is your message to P&G and all supporters of the programme?
I would like to thank P & G for their resolve to help girls stay in school for as long as possible by providing them with the sanitary towels, for facilitating the training process for nurses and penetrating areas that have remained forgotten for a long time; places like Samburu and Maasai Mara. The fact that these girls are given the chance to be better versions of themselves is a really special thing and I pray that this programme will spread to all the 47 counties in our country. For Bethel, they are doing such a good job at planning and supervising the groundwork. I hope they find more donors for the boy child as well and of course; I am thankful that they believed in me and gave me a job.