Leading By Example: How One Young Woman’s Hope For The Future Is Inspiring Others To Not Give Up
By: Mercy Ndunge Mwanzia, Communications Liaison Officer, Kenya, WUSC
The 11th of October is commemorated globally as a day to draw attention to the obstacles girls encounter while acknowledging their power to define their own futures. While there are many ways the global community can support girls to take back their power, one of the most effective ways is by opening space for girls to support one another. On the 10th anniversary of International Day of the Girl, WUSC celebrates the many young women around the world who are helping girls in their communities to reach their full potential.
Andhira Kara sees the transformative impact of girls supporting girls every day through her role as the Scholars Program Coordinator for the Displaced and Refugee youth Enabling Environment Mechanism (DREEM) project at WUSC in Kenya. Through her work, she brings awareness to the many opportunities available to girls to further their education, and encourages them to apply. But her journey to support girls’ empowerment didn’t start here.
Andhira is a refugee from Sudan who has devoted her career to helping other displaced girls and young women.
“I like to think of myself as a girl who wants to make her community a better place. That means I am a mentor, and an inspiration to others, and I am working hard to give back to the community to which I belong. To be able to identify where the gaps are and how I can be of help.”
Andhira has worked with refugee communities in a variety of capacities, including livelihood and education projects and pioneering refugee-led research. She has worked with the African Union in the Department of Children Affairs, which monitors how different African countries design and implement their charters and policies on Child Protection. Andhira also volunteers in her community, doing peace-building work and holding mentorship sessions when secondary schools are closed, encouraging young girls and boys in her community in both Nakuru and Kakuma refugee camp. Andhira graduated from the University of Nairobi with a bachelor’s degree in International Studies and a Master of Science (MSc) in Africa and International Development from the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom.
Andhira’s success is rooted in her sheer determination to overcome the various obstacles she faced as a young woman and as a refugee. She was born in Sudan and was forced to flee to Kenya in the early 2000s at the age of eight due to war. She first resided in Lokichoggio, a small town in Northwestern Kenya close to the Kenya-South Sudan border. She and her family were later relocated to Kakuma Refugee Camp.
Asked about what life was like living in the camp, she describes it using one word: Hope.
“Living in Kakuma would not be described as the ideal environment for a child to grow up but coming to Kakuma for me was hope. This was a second chance for me to be able to focus on my life and create a better future. Waking up without getting scared of any bombings. In Sudan, we used to hide several times per week in the mountains because we were scared of an attack in the village and this was not the case in Kakuma. For some of the children in the camp, hearing the sound of airplanes was frightening because of the trauma that they experienced in Sudan.”
Andhira remembers enjoying that she could now play typical games and engage with other children from different countries within the camp. It was different from what she had previously experienced.
“When I was growing up, we were playing with bullets and some of the toys we would create using mud would be an imitation of soldiers. We would for example make cartoons that had different connotations of soldiers carrying the various weapons that we knew. I know so many kinds of weapons and unfortunately, I even know how to use some of them. You had to have the skills to be able to protect yourself.”
Playing normal games was a way for her to rebuild her mental health and overcome the trauma she had experienced as a child in Sudan.
As she settled into her new home, Andhira was able to pursue an education. This was despite one of the key challenges she faced: the belief in her communities that girls should not go to school. Today, some still believe that girls are not supposed to attend school. This belief is based on the assumption that girls will either become pregnant as teenagers or be married off. Her mother faced pressure from the community for allowing Andhira and her three sisters to attend school.
“Dealing with such community perceptions and values was toxic with regards to the girl child. I had to prove that education was a good thing and that meant working extra hard in school to show them the good results.”
Andhira was a high achiever and her teachers fought hard to keep her in school. They would follow up with her whenever she missed class to find out why she didn’t show up. The support from her teachers was crucial in ensuring that she remained enrolled in school.
Another challenge Andhira had to overcome was that little effort was made in considering girls’ specific needs in the classroom. For example, many girls suffered from period poverty. With the high cost of sanitary wear and limited family and community support, girls did not have avenues to seek advice and guidance about their menstrual health. In fact, discussions about girls’ sexual and reproductive health were almost considered taboo, exacerbating their plight. Today, great strides have been made to make schools safe and welcoming spaces for both girls and boys in the camps, such as through menstrual health education and the separation of washrooms for boys and girls. But when Andhira was in school, washroom facilities for boys and girls were not distinguished.
In addition to all this, class congestion meant that there were no one-on-one sessions with teachers for girls or boys unless you were an exceptional student and were among the top five in class. It would be difficult for students that actually needed this one-on-one support to get the attention they required from a teacher if they were having trouble understanding concepts.
“Despite all these challenges, what kept me going was hope for the future. I knew there had to be a way out and the way out for me was to the fact that I had access to education.”
Andhira had heard that education leads to success. This meant a different future for her and it gave her the strength to endure and the motivation to succeed. She was convinced that things would improve for herself and her community if she received an education.
“Education for girls means success for the community. Giving back to girls is very easy and it comes so naturally. Having empowered girls who can be able to stand up for their rights and decide what the future is, is key in changing the toxic community perceptions and values.”
This is one of the reasons Andhira is passionate about girls’ education. To her, educated girls equal peace. Peace that will benefit the societies in the communities from which she comes. She is a firm believer that girls naturally care for their communities and can have a positive influence in times of conflict. Girls, in her opinion, are very active in peace-building but their contributions are not recognized. Giving girls an opportunity to go to school would be enormously beneficial to everyone.
Andhira’s perseverance, faith, and hope for the future paid off when she was awarded a scholarship through the Mastercard Foundation’s Scholars Program to pursue her Master’s degree at the University of Edinburgh. The fact that she could secure this opportunity was unbelievable for her. She initially thought it was a mistake, and it took her five days to believe the email was real. She says this because there were so many applicants that when she was selected, the feeling was overwhelming.
“For me it wasn’t just about going abroad. It wasn’t about getting the Master’s degree, what was key for me is how that was going to change the lives of so many girls because I was someone they had lived with and seen grow. It wasn’t just the girls at school but the women that had seen me grow up in the community who have daughters. This was going to influence so much.”
Despite the fact that she was experiencing a range of emotions, this new opportunity served to bolster her belief that there was hope for the future.
Andhira’s success was felt by others in her community as well. Upon hearing the news, her mother was very proud. She had witnessed her daughters work so hard in school.
“I know you are a hardworking girl and this is why you got it. I don’t know how you get these opportunities considering I never went to school so I was not able to help you apply. I know the future is not just bright for us, but for the entire community. You are doing this for the millions of other girls who were not able to get away from the conflict. You are the hope for them and you have the responsibility to take care of others as well.”
With the support of the Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program team and her new friends, Andhira completed her Master’s in Africa and International Development and graduated in 2020, all the while holding fast to her mother’s words and bearing the responsibility to earn her Master’s degree not just for herself but for the entire community. One of the things that attracted her to that course was the topics on displacement and development, having worked in the development and humanitarian sectors. This was a good step to further her knowledge and skills in those fields.
For most refugees, being resettled in another country provides hope for a better life and future away from the refugee camps. Andhira was offered a lucrative job in the United Kingdom, opening the door to resettlement. But she chose to return to Kenya. When asked how she came to this decision, she said:
“One thing I knew for sure while growing up is that I wanted to be a living example for someone. I wanted to give back. I know you can give back from anywhere but I wanted to be there to serve as an example and to be a mentor. I knew for sure I was meant to come back and give back to my community.”
There was some uncertainty as to whether she would get a job upon her return but she was determined not to remain abroad and disappear entirely. She wanted to return despite the fact that doing so would label her as a “refugee.” She was aware of the implications, but she was determined to return and deal with them. At the end of the day, it was her home, and she wanted to have a direct impact on her community. She wanted to contribute as well as be a part of the solutions developed by communities.
Andhira has continued her mentorship sessions since her return to Kenya, sharing her experience with young girls in Kakuma and shedding light on the vast opportunities that exist. She actively points them to the diverse opportunities that are available online.
Working with the DREEM project, the scholarships offered by the Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program are some of the opportunities she actively shares. The Scholars Program aims to have 100,000 African students graduate from post-secondary education by 2030. Of these scholarships, 25% are for refugee and displaced youth. The program also aims to deliver 70% of these scholarships to girls. Leading the Scholars Program work on DREEM allows her to share the opportunity that changed her life with many other girls,not just in Kakuma, but throughout Kenya and the African continent. Three girls so far have enrolled at United States International University Africa (USIU Africa) for higher education as a result of her efforts, and she continues to mentor others, showing them other opportunities that are not necessarily related to resettlement.
On this special International Day of the Girl her message to the young refugee girls and the community at large is simple:
“It can be done, despite all the challenges you experience. Have faith in yourself and don’t be afraid to ask questions. To the community: if we want real, long-term change, girls should be given the opportunity to express themselves and use their talents.”