This story was written by Mitchell Khandenje from KENYA.

My very first lesson that girls have no place to prosper was in high school. Despite the normal public system where the majority of schools are ‘single gender’, I found myself in a mixed school. At first, I took no notice of any differences – we were all brothers and sisters, just like in primary school. But with time, things changed. The population of boys was nearly three times the girls population, so the boys almost had their way unanimously.

As a teenager experiencing changes and not being sure of how people would perceive your utterances or actions, it can be difficult to stand up for yourself. Most of the girls would end up consoling each other in the dormitory, crying themselves to sleep because ‘the guys said something about them’. I have always been a calm, reserved kind of child – passing my tests, assisting others. But I was not in the habit of lying to myself and others, so I was always in trouble for speaking my mind.

One incident that I would never forget was when I stood up to one of the greatest ‘taunters’ in my class. As young ladies start to develop, it can sometimes be uncomfortable to embrace the changes. The majority of us were shy, wearing baggy sweaters or skirts, while our male counterparts took pleasure in chanting all forms of ‘praise’ for these changes, an emotionally derailing routine for the young ladies. It was in the midst of this miscreant hullabaloo when I found myself the source of a chant, walking out in the evening. I wanted to ignore this, as I would call it, childishness, but my nature could not allow it. I took a turn and gave the gang leader a piece of my mind on how much he ought to grow up. Apart from the uproar and unedifying spectacle that unfolded, he and I are good friends to date.

One incident that I would never forget was when I stood up to one of the greatest ‘taunters’ in my class.

Ever since the incident, I became less or practically unashamed of who I was, accepting myself and standing up for myself when needed to. I have since had many more incidents where I was told girls should not advance ‘too much’ academically, neither should she be witty. At some point I was sabotaged at the workplace and my workstation cleared, leaving my items lost because someone thought I would impede their success. Some elders would tell me that I would not attract a husband if I continued with the path I was treading. Some would classify me as a feminist and others would call me a mere prude. The road has been smooth, but believing in myself has been a significant factor in enabling me gain mileage academically and professionally as a young woman in sub-saharan Africa.

The African culture depicts the woman as the household manager, a good wife and mother. Sometimes great intellectual capacity, academic advancement, strong will and focus to improve oneself and society can be perceived negatively. Despite civilisation, innovation, economic development and female empowerment on the continent, the ‘girl at home’ mentality is somewhat prevalent in schools as well as workplaces. One’s male counterpart is usually presumed to be a better option for a promotion or good at math and science just because it is the norm. But one should not allow such stereotypes to bring them down and impede their success.

I have learnt to appreciate that sometimes people judge or stereotype because of how they have been brought up, or the people they associate with often. Teach a baby that a vice is good and the child will grow up thinking that the wrong thing is actually right. As is my case, I have been privileged to work with great people who believe that a person’s skills, knowledge and potential is more important than gender or appearance for a given job. I have met male professors who acknowledge a young lady’s wit and hard work in a chosen science as well as a male counterpart’s without any bias or prejudice.

Standing up for oneself should be a basic habit inculcated in us. You can be treated with a negative bias perhaps due to your race, gender or intellectual capacity, among other reasons, but it is up to you to prove them wrong. Let your work or art speak for itself. As the saying goes, actions speak louder than words. Similarly, seeing is believing. Once others witness your worth and importance, they will almost naturally change a certain preformed opinion of you to what they now actually know of you.

This story was part of Safety First for Girls (SAFIGIs) #SharingNotShaming campaign.

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