Slum girl weaves future for single mothers, commercial sex workers and victims of domestic violence
Scenes of childhood friends and neighbours injecting themselves with drugs, engaging in prostitution and scavenging on expired food remains in East Africa’s largest dumpsite more than 20 years ago, still haunt Stella Mwende.
By then the founder of Mrembo Empowerment Centre was a young girl, undertaking her Primary education at Ngunyumu Primary School, bordering Korogocho slum and Dandora estate in Nairobi.
Most families here are very poor, homes run by single mothers with an average of five children per household. A few men living around have been consumed by drugs and are unable to fend for own children they can barely identify.
“I have also been brought up by a single mother. Life has been a struggle in this part of the world. I have witnessed great dreams being shuttered. These images still disturb me,” recalls Mwende.
Despite the exposure to these vices, Mwende was lucky to have a strict disciplinarian – her mother, who ensured she was not influenced into drug abuse, violence and teenage sex. If Mwende was not in school, she was at home helping her mother with household chores or attending mentorship and worship sessions at a local church.
“Church helped me and my sister to grow up in Godly ways. It exposed me to a different set-up, a new kind of life and people who have mentored me, to shape who I am today,” she says.
It is at the Church that Mwende discovered her gift of giving back to the community, despite doing it more often that not, unknowingly. Occasionally, she would take her friends who had fallen victim to domestic abuse to her home, oblivious of the risk of impending attacks by her friends’ parents. She would also refer many cases to the local Priest for intervention.
Mwende recalls a day when she had taken some of her friends who had fallen victim to domestic violence to the Priest for counselling and guidance and consideration for Scholarship opportunities. She did not expect the response from the Priest.
“It is you who truly deserves the Scholarship to University. We have seen your efforts in helping other kids, especially victims of domestic violence in the community,” she recalls the Priest saying.
At University, she studied Sociology, because she wanted to understand why most of her friends, family and neighbours were living a desolate life and how she could actively play a role in transforming their lives. Of importance to her were the girl children, who were the major victims of domestic abuse, commercial sex work and teen pregnancies that rendered many of them, young single mothers.
She continued with the heart of giving while still in campus, supporting the children’s homes back in her community with beddings, sanitary pads and foodstuffs.
While girls of her age (Early 20’s) would save money for partying and furnishing their wardrobes, Mwende was thinking about how she could build a rescue and training center to impart positive knowledge back home to save a sinking society. However, she did not have enough cash to actualise her dream. But she pressed on with hope that one day she will be a story of success.
Her efforts can only be described as resilient having tried her luck in sales and marketing of fast-moving consumer goods, vending juice on the streets, selling cereals and trading in movies.
Two years ago, the mother of two managed to save some cash to set up a social enterprise with a big dream: To train young women on basic hairdressing and beauty skills.
“I realised young women in slums like where I was brought up were only doing hairdressing as a socialization tool. They did not know the economic windfall that comes with it and the transformation it would have not only for them but also for the whole community,” says Mwende.
The enterprise Mrembo Empowerment Center runs a school offering basic hairdressing and beauty training with a mission to improve the socio-economic status of victims of commercial sex work, domestic violence survivors and single mothers by equipping them with sufficient and dynamic skills set to restore their dignity and build self-sustenance.
The strategy is to prepare young women in slums to tap into Kenya’s beauty and cosmetics industry which is estimated to be worth over 53 million dollars and expected to grow to over 64 million dollars by 2020. “This is a market we are leveraging on to transform the lives of these vulnerable young women,” says Mwende. Mrembo programmes and activities are aligned towards achievement of gender equality and the sustainable development agenda.
“We are particularly committed to achieving SDG1 on ending poverty, SDG2 on zero hunger, SDG 4 on Quality Education, SDG5 on Gender Equality and SDG 17 on partnerships for the goals, reflecting the multi-dimensional nature of our work in women’s empowerment,” says Mwende.
Mrembo Founder, Stellamaris Mwende, after winning Africa’s Most Innovative Organization prize
Mwende says increased enrolment and enquiries are recorded in form of referrals from friends and churches. We have partnered with Soweto Catholic Church and Kayole Catholic Church, the churches forward us needy girls with a passion in hairdressing and beauty.
In 2017, Mrembo was recognised as Africa’s most innovative organization for changing the lives of commercial sex workers, domestic abuse survivors and single mothers.
Mrembo stood tall against more than 40 rivals from the continent in a regional challenge organised by organised by The British Council, Acumen Fund, Standard Media Group, International Labour Organisation, Villgro Kenya and The Catholic University of Milan, Italy.
The enterprise topped the training and education category, in the Business Innovation Challenge themed, Connecting Impact Entrepreneurs to Impact Investors.