For Caren Nelima Odanga, 21, fighting for women’s rights isn’t just a cause. It’s how she has survived.
She runs Sisari Women’s Initiative out of a small room in western Kenya. It’s an organisation that aims to support and educate women in rural areas—and it’s grown to include 600 members in just two years. For Caren, that’s only the beginning.
“I’m looking forward to more. I want many, many more women to be involved,” she says.
On weekends, Caren goes to local churches to teach women about contraception. Every month she returns from Nairobi with reusable sanitary pads for the girls in her village. If a woman comes to her office to report domestic violence, she takes them to local law enforcement. And everywhere she goes, she preaches the gospel of girls’ education.
While she tackles a lot of topics, she believes each one is too important to ignore.
“Gender violence is rampant, early child marriage is rampant, and women are not heard in their communities,” Caren says. It’s not just about violence: it’s about the inclusion of women politically, socially, and economically.
“They’re not the ones to make decisions. They’re just taught to listen and not say anything,” she says. “The things I’ve seen aren’t good.”
When Caren says she’s seen these things, she doesn’t mean from a distance. When her own mother was only 13, she was married off to a much older man. Soon after, she gave birth to her first child.
“My dad was irresponsible. He used to drink alcohol a lot,” she says. Caren believes that if her mother had had more power over the family’s finances, they wouldn’t have been so poor.
Caren and her siblings wandered neighbouring villages looking for casual labour to make money, often causing them to miss school. When her father came home drunk and demanding food, “my mum explained to him there was no money and he’d start beating her. That was so traumatizing.”
Caren didn’t know then that she herself would experience some of what her mother went through. When she was only 12, she was raped and impregnated by a man in her village, “I just think about what happened and I feel so much anger in me,” says Caren. “At least it’s over. I’m another person. I can’t live by the past. I have to move on.”
She’s moved on in a remarkable way, propelling her life forward and helping women like her to escape the very worst of poverty along the way. She has trained 13 young women who have survived early marriage and domestic violence, to do outreach, continuing the cycle of women helping women to escape poverty and abuse.
She is working hard to ensure that women in Kenya get a better, more equal start in life—and that they get a voice.
“I want to speak out about what we women are going through,” she says, “and highlight these issues to the world.”
After she gave birth, Caren received a scholarship from the Yaya Education Fund to attend secondary school. As soon as she graduated, she founded Sisari Women’s Initiative at age 19.
This year, she received the Queen’s Young Leaders Award and was flown to London in recognition of her amazing work. She recently completed a degree in journalism, a move she hopes will amplify her voice for equality.