Gladys Muthara, 29, and Susan Waruingi, 26, are Kenyan gender-based violence (GBV) campaigners. Thanks to the ICV Alumni Grant, they ran a year of workshops with teenage survivors of violence in the slums of Nairobi, teaching them to produce thousands of paper stars – while opening up about their past.
They explain how taking 7,500 stars produced by young people across Kenya to this year’s Commonwealth Games helped shine a light on their own personal experiences of violence.
I volunteered with VSO ICS in Abuja, Nigeria, in 2015 on education projects in the region. We were mobilising teenagers, forming neighbourhood communities and helping work with them through some of the issues affecting them in their educational lives.
The way girls are regarded in Nigeria and Kenya is very similar. My desire to get into development was based on the challenges I saw in getting girls into education where I grew up. In Africa, girls are often seen as a group who don’t need access to school or education.
Violence in Kenya
I’d met Susan just before ICS. We returned from our placements with a greater awareness of some of the issues facing young people. And the conversation started there. Soon we were doing life skills training for 100 girls in Kajiado County, skills that we’d learnt ourselves through ICS.
I remember thinking about what we could do about the issue of violence in Kenya. Something one teenager said struck me during one of the sessions. She said, ’if there’s one thing I really don’t like talking about, it’s violence in the family’. We realised that what was needed was conversation.
We set up groups of teenagers and started sharing our own personal experiences of violence. The young people shared theirs. We were clear that we needed to address the issue of violence from the offset so when they grow up they can break the cycle.
But we were missing the practical element. We needed an activity that creates a safe environment for young people to talk about violence and what they'd witnessed in their families.
My friend told us about the One Million Stars campaign and how we could get teenagers to weave paper stars while opening up – the stars being symbolic of lighting up the darkness of violence in the world.
When I weaved my first star, from a piece of paper from an exercise book, I'm telling you – I cried. I said to myself, I can't believe I went to university to be sat here weaving stars to light up the darkness of violence in my life. But if this is what it's going to take, then so be it!
In March, after a year of sessions with young people across the country, we finally sent 7,500 stars to Brisbane, Australia, to join others from around the world at the 2018 Commonwealth Games. It was really, really beautiful seeing the work of these Kenyan teenagers on the other side of the world.
And it’s really helped me. A year before, I was in a violent relationship. It's normal in Kenya to experience violence in families, especially in the rural areas. I’d always struggled to talk about my past. But I felt a huge relief as I weaved the stars. Over time, I started feeling free.
Susan and I want to continue fighting GBV as volunteers and in our future work. Although our paths and career focuses will differ, ending the effects of short-term and long-term violence on young people will always remain at the core of our work.
My ICS placement was also in Nigeria, in Ilesa. We were creating inclusive neighbourhood spaces: room for children, the youth and the community to come together and talk about their problems – and what we could do to assist them. It was all about giving them power.
On the ground, this was my first experience of community development. I was fresh from university. Community development is now my career, but at that point I didn’t have experience. ICS enabled me to see myself in that career and realise I have the potential to solve community problems.
My interest is in youth empowerment in Africa. When I met Gladys and saw that she'd started to make progress in doing just that - I knew this was a good path for me. I respected that she'd started working on her own. We quickly realised our different strengths.
We identified places where GBV runs high, and that's where we decided to pilot our project. We started off in the slum areas, then expanded to Machakos County, which has the second highest number of recorded cases of GBV in the country.
The opportunity to work alongside the One Million Stars project was great. We thought, well, why not align ourselves to this cause. Weaving stars is a way of making a big issue manageable. It's fun, it’s an ice-breaker and because GBV is sensitive, they need to be comfortable before they’ll open up.
Weaving those stars is what interested them the most. They’d compete against each other to make the most, and that really helped them to co-operate and learn in a way that just doesn’t happen in the classroom. How they started the sessions isn’t how they ended them.
Making a difference
We contributed to something, you know. Even if it was just a drop in the ocean, we did it. Through the whole project, we told the teenagers we were weaving the stars with that next year maybe they’d see their own star on television as the country watches the Commonwealth Games.
And you know what? Finally, we did. We saw one of the stars we’d made with a Kenyan flag.
For those teenagers, it wasn’t about seeing the star, though. It was about not being alone. It was about knowing they’re surviving GBV alongside people from all across the world.