The Question That Changed Everything…April 14, 2017
“Excuse me, Teacher, but what if more than one bad man is attacking you?”
The laughter in our self-defense class came to a complete stop. She looked down at her hands. All 200 girls became silent as they waited for me to answer this quiet girl’s question.
She was still fidgeting with her hands when I asked her name. “Judisa,” she answered barely above a whisper. She looked up, and asked the question again. “How can we get away if there is more than one bad man?” I’ll never forget the fear I saw her eyes. Our translator came up behind me to explain that an eleven-year-old girl was recently attacked and raped in the nearby forrest. She had been on her way to school. By the time her cries were heard, it was too late.
I dropped to the ground in the center of the circle to show them ways to fight off an attacker. I asked if the girls would be able to join me to practice these techniques, but I learned that they would not feel comfortable practicing on the ground. I showed them how the same skills we had learned standing up could also be used while on the ground. Then we reminded them that if one technique didn’t work, to try another. If a wrist-release wasn’t working, then try the foot stomp. If striking the attacker’s nose didn’t work, get him with your knee in the groin. Don’t give up. Most importantly – do not walk alone, especially through the forrest. Two girls are better than one, three are better than two, and groups are even safer. If someone makes you feel uncomfortable, LISTEN to your intuition and get away. Humans, and especially girls, are the only creatures on earth that don’t listen to their instincts. That funny feeling we get in our belly, the pressure in our chests, the tingling on our head – those are all gifts of warning to us. Listen to the warning, then run away. Always run away to safety.
As we closed the class, Kelsey and I talked more with Judisa. She was a refugee. Her family had come to Kenya from South Sudan to escape the horrors of war and famine. Kenya was her Promised Land, and now she was still faced with the threat of danger every single day. She told us about her little brothers and sisters. She told us about how she loved coming to school, and that she hoped to be a doctor someday. She told us that even though the she had never been attacked, she knew many girls who had been the victims of violence. This young girl who had already seen far more death and destruction than anyone should ever have to see in a lifetime promised that she would help younger girls practice the skills they learned in our class.
As we left, Kelsey gave Judisa her very own personal safety device – a Stabby Kitty. To the rest of the world, it looks like a cat-shaped keychain, but in the hands of a girl who has learned to protect herself, it can be used as an extension of her training – to keep the bad guy away.
I asked Mary, our translator, why the girls were not comfortable with practicing self-defense skills on the ground. I assumed the reason was so they did not get their school uniforms dirty in the red, clay-like dirt. Mary explained that many of these girls were not wearing panties, and were not able to get on the ground out of modesty.
These children live in a nearby slum, and if they own any underwear at all, it might only be one pair. When families struggle to provide clean water and food for their children’s tummies, and have fled their war-torn homeland with only the clothes on their backs, underwear is a luxury.
I had first visited Kenya nine months earlier, and had talked extensively with teachers and a school counselor about the struggles girls in western Kenya face every day. They said the biggest need was for sanitary pads. So many girls are unable to attend school during their periods because they do not have access to sanitary supplies. Girls resort to using mud, leaves, twigs, rocks, or tearing up their favorite t-shirt to be able to attend school – and even more don’t have anything to use, so they stay home. After missing so many classes over the years, many girls will fall behind and eventually drop out of school. The cycle of an education cut short, poverty, and oppression continues. This has to end with us – and now that we know about it – we can stop it. We can’t stand by and watch these precious girls with unlimited potential give up their hopes and dreams for the future because of their monthly periods.
We started working with a local Kenyan seamstress named Stella to make washable/reusable sanitary pads for girls in need, and she was also willing to teach girls how to sew in her shop after school and on weekends so we can teach them valuable job skills, while also meeting the largest need facing girls in this community. We had ordered sixty handmade purses from Stella to take home with us and sell – with all of the proceeds going to provide girls with pads. Each purse is only $25, but will provide FIVE GIRLS with all of the sanitary pads they will need for an ENTIRE YEAR!
The need is so overwhelming. We don’t want to just stop this wheel of oppression – we want to break it.
I video chatted with our Fearless and Female self-defense instructor Cindy Coughenhour that night. I told her about Judisa, and how the girls were unable to get on the ground in her school, and in the other three schools that I had visited so far on this trip. I tried to hold back the tears as I described the fear in their eyes when Judisa asked about being attacked by more than one man. I told her about the little girl who had recently been attacked in the forrest bordering the school.
The girls couldn’t practice protecting themselves on the ground because they do not have underwear. They need to learn these defensive skills because they are being attacked on the way to school. They stay home from school because they don’t have sanitary pads to use during their periods. If they stay home from school, they can’t break free from poverty. They cannot use the pads we’re providing them if they do not have panties. We encountered the very same need at every school we visited during our two weeks in Kenya. Girls need underwear, sanitary pads, and to know how to defend themselves. Another complicated cycle was rising up in front of us, and there was one commonality – our girls need underwear.
Cindy couldn’t sleep that night, and was up thinking about our problem. She turned on the television and saw Heather Thomson (of Bravo TV’s Real Housewives of New York) in a commercial. That gave Cindy an idea, so she found the Yummie by Heather Thomson Facebook page and sent her a message pouring out her heart about what Kelsey and I were seeing in Kenya. Cindy later told me that she didn’t expect anything to come from her letter, so she was shocked when she received a reply. Heather and her assistant Remembrance had told Tasc Performance about our story, and they had boxes of panties in their warehouse that they would send us for our girls in Kenya! We learned that Tasc Performance is an eco-conscious clothing company that makes their clothes out of bamboo, for a comfortable feel and, as their website says, “performs without chemical enhancements.”
Cindy gave me the wonderful news the night before we started our journey back to America. I was speechless. Their generosity and willingness to help change these lives was overwhelming! This time I fought back tears of joy – knowing that I wasn’t even home yet, and already our girls were being loved and cared for by people on the other side of the world!
Five boxes of underwear arrived from Tasc Performace less than 48 hours after we arrived back home! They sent 166 pairs of bikini briefs for our girls in Kenya, and because they are just that wonderful, they sent over 500 pairs of thong underwear for us to donate to shelters and free clothing pantries for women in need in our own Wichita, Kansas community!
I continue to be blown away by the wonderful things that happen when people work together! The stories of our girls inspired Tasc Performace, and Tasc Performance has inspired us here at SheHopes! The world is full of caring people – and so many times we want to help, but we don’t know how.
My eleven-year-old son started a toy drive where he collected over 300 stuffed animals for the children of Kenya and India. A group of Girl Scouts raised enough money to provide a school in a Kenyan slum with 425 meals. An author gave his books and love of Shakespeare to schools in Kenya. A Wichita hairdresser is launching her own underwear drive – where she’ll offer incentives to her clients to bring in packages of underwear. We are selling the beautiful purses that Stella the seamstress made, and the proceeds will provide girls with the sanitary pads they need for an entire year. For now we’re talking, planning, and dreaming about how we can reach even more girls. Every little bit helps, and together we can spread life, light, and HOPE around the world.
We will continue to be a voice for Judisa and for all of the girls and women we meet on our travels. Sometimes HOPE begins with a pair of underwear. Doing good really is simple – we only need to start.