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Kenyan Activist Works to Assist Young Unmarried Mothers

In Kenya, a women’s activist and her national NGO are bringing hope to thousands of abandoned teenage mothers. The group is called TEMAK, or Teenage Mothers and Girls Association of Kenya. The organization trains unwed mothers in how to make crafts and do other work that will help them support themselves and their children. So far, almost two thousand unmarried mothers and girls have been through the program. Voice of America English to Africa Service reporter Ajanga Khayesi in Kisumu profiles TEMAK and its founder, Philomena Mashaka.

A former high school teacher, Philomena Mashaka, leads TEMAK which she created in Kisumu in 1992. Her reasons were personal. She herself had witnessed what it was like to be thrown out on the street and to live in poverty. Two of her own sisters became pregnant and dropped out of school. Her parents kicked them and their infants out of the house. Because the sisters did not marry, their only alternative was to seek help from men, which led to even more children and deeper poverty.

Their plight had a profound effect on Mashaka. “I blamed my parents for being unfair to my sisters, aged 15 and 14 years respectively. My parents never taught my sisters about adolescence stages, the risks of sex, and avoiding pregnancy. My sisters were faced with peer pressure [and difficulty handling sexual maturation],” she says.

Her sisters died of AIDS and two of their babies died of malnutrition and disease. The elder sister died 21 years ago, while Mashaka was studying at the university. The second sister, who later joined Temak as a teacher, died in November. Mashaka decided to try to change things.

Married with two children, she follows Kenyan tradition and cares for the five children left by her sisters.

Mashaka left a good job as a high school teacher in order to help vulnerable orphans and girls. When she learned her teaching job would not give her enough to support the project, she went into poultry farming.

While teaching in a public high school in Kisumu, Mashaka encountered girls facing problems like her sisters’. She started counseling sessions in the school and later held them in her house.

Using her own personal savings, Mashaka purchased sweets, clothes, ice cubes and other goods for the girls to sell on the streets.

Sixty percent of the sales were saved in the group account, which enabled TEMAK to rent a building. The remaining 40 percent went to the girls.

Mashaka says, “Moving from one slum to the other and from village to village, I mobilized hundreds of young teenage mothers through door-to-door campaigns. I turned my house into a girls’ center, sharing every facility available at the expense of my two children and husband’s comfort. “

Today, Mashaka rents a house to serve as TEMAK’s headquarters. There, young girls are trained in a number of vocational skills, including tailoring, dressmaking, hairdressing, computer operations, and arts and crafts. The headquarters includes a nursery school and a day care room for young children. A clinic and laboratory provide health services for the members. The center supports its programs with the sales of craft items.

TEMAK’s records show it has provided job training to more than 16 hundred girls. It’s also treated 30,000 patients -- most of them HIV positive -- and cared for over 600 children. Rotary Club has donated medicines, including immunity boosting drugs for the 2,000 girls who are about to start taking anti-retroviral therapies for AIDS.

TEMAK is headed by a management board made up of local chiefs and elders from Obunga, Nyawita, Kamakoha, Kanyagwar and Manyatta slums. It plans to move to a new five-hectare site called the “The city of hope” center in Kisumu. The center will provide a home for 750 unmarried mothers and a dormitory for 300 orphan girls. Construction has started with the children’s wing, to be followed by sections for classrooms, an administration block and schools.

Mashaka says, “It will be completed in five years for $1,145,000. It will include a special primary school to cater to the special needs girls, such as the physically handicapped, deaf and blind. It will have a nursery school and kindergarten, a rescue center for abandoned infants and young girls, boarding facilities, a chapel, training areas, public halls, a swimming pool and play grounds. “

Some of the first girls rescued by Temak re-enrolled in school and are taking degree courses in Internet technology, business administration and international relations at Maseno and Baraton universities and at the United States International University in Nairobi.

In the next decade, Mashaka says she’d like to do more to educate the public about the Temak projects and extend the centers countrywide, and also to Uganda and Tanzania. Currently Temak is operating only in Nyanza and in Kenya’s Western provinces, with centers in Kisumu, Nyando and Busia districts.

She says such centers are needed across Africa, “All African people within the continent should initiate similar projects to help and empower the African woman. In the past,Temak received and taught researchers from other parts of Africa on how to launch projects in their countries.

Mashaka says even unmarried young women with children can contribute to national development with their own income-generating projects.

Her dream is to be sure such women and their children don’t drop out of sight but become active members of society, able to fulfill their potential and support themselves.