Dinah tells me she wants to be a teacher when she grows up.
The classroom in Iten, Kenya is packed full of 8- to 10-year-old girls. They started out very quiet, but the rustling and murmuring and quiet giggling that signals their comfort in this place and with me have all increased.
Outside is a stunning view of the escarpment sloping down the Rift Valley. Outside are the high altitude training centers where Kenya’s famous runners train. Inside are sweet, murmuring girl children.
Dinah is the rebel. Every other girl has either said she wants to be a runner (the standard dream here) or to be a doctor (for my benefit, I’m sure.) Dinah’s eyes shine, the type of shine that speaks to hope.
There are too many odds stacked against girls in Kenya as we celebrate this first International Day of the Girl Child. Less than half of these girls will go on to secondary school. More than 1/3 will be pregnant before they are 20 years old. Less than half of them will have someone skilled to help them deliver their babies in a country where 6,000 women die every year from the complications of pregnancy and childbirth.
I look at them and I wonder how many were infected with HIV from their mothers, and I wonder how many more will go on to get HIV as they are growing up. About 15% of these girls will have had sex by the time they are 15, and very few will be protected during that encounter. Only 12% will use a condom. At least 6% of the girls giggling and smiling and dreaming in this room will be infected with HIV along the course of their growing up.
There are many things that might make the eyes of these girl children stop shining.
But we also know some things that will keep them shining. If they stay in school, these girls will be healthier and happier. They will go on to have better jobs, to have fewer and healthier babies, and to have less problems in giving birth to those babies. These girls will be much less likely to get infected with HIV if they stay in school. The economy will benefit, their families will benefit, and their eyes will continue to shine.
Keep a girl in school. School fees, school uniforms, sanitary napkins for those days when they are menstruating. These practical items keep girls in school. For a few dollars, their eyes will keep shining. These items allow Dinah to go on to teach more girls in more classrooms on a distant Day of the Girl Child.
(Doctor V’s final note: Yes, I know I’m a day late posting my Day of the Girl Child story. Girls deserve a little grace…)