Yvonne Akoth asks why a generation of women raised on girls' empowerment messages is suffering so much violence.
“Perhaps young men don’t feel empowered enough to handle today’s modern young woman.”
When I first heard Teairra Mari sing the words “I got myself a sponsor,” it made me think of a woman going after what she wants irrespective of society’s beliefs and norms. I identified with the beautiful lyrics, melodious tune, and ecstatic rhythm. This song, Sponsor, was my favorite throughout 2010.
Little did I know, eight years down the line, I would see “sponsor culture” become a glorified phenomenon in my community. It is now common for older, powerful men to offer money, luxuries, and material things to ambitious young women to support their lifestyle. Transactional sex is often involved in this exchange. I see many millennial women, who feel they have the universe in the palm of their hand, get preyed upon by their so-called “sponsors.”
I grew up in a patriarchal society where the low socio-economic status of women impeded their development and significantly reduced their chances of success. I also grew up at a time when girl child empowerment programs were flourishing through financial, psychological, and intellectual investment and support. There was a focus on providing opportunities for us to develop our fullest potential.
Like many girls of my generation, I was determined to change the status quo for women in Kenya. We in the “girl child” generation decided enough was enough. We were going to overcome obstacles that generations before us were unable to overcome.
In the 2000s, there was an awakening period for women. We were inspired by successful women, from Oprah Winfrey to Beyoncé Knowles, who had it all. The advent of the Internet and Kenya’s technological revolution exposed us to the lives of reality TV stars like Kim Kardashian. Many young women all over the world were attracted to this urban culture and the modern trappings of a glamorous life. Young women in Kenya would not be left behind.
Today, this vibrant, determined, and unbowed generation of young women who have benefited from years of investment in the girl child is coming into the limelight. Young women below 30 years of age are often referred to as “Slay Queens.” This new generation is challenging society’s cultural norms. They are smart, know their worth, and are able to negotiate their way to anything.
While young women in Kenya are increasingly attracted to the lifestyle of reality stars, the true life of these stars behind the scenes is rarely shown. In the last five years, there have been many high profile cases of wealthy, young women living a glamorous life who have lost their lives under mysterious circumstances. Many were sexually abused and then murdered.
As more women go after what they want, making their own decisions about their lives, they are increasingly exposed to harm. Empowered and ambitious young women are seen as a challenge to Kenya’s asymmetrical power dynamics.
This emerging situation is a new security threat to the life of a young and determined go-getter type of woman. This disturbs me because I am that go-getter woman. I relate to the woman dazzled by modern pop culture, the woman who is passionate about life and willing to do whatever it takes to achieve greatness and success. I see myself in the woman who is forced by life’s challenges to take the opportunities that come her way.
I was privileged enough to have a strict mother who didn’t believe in shortcuts. I have chosen a more difficult path to long-term success instead of seeking short-term opportunities from powerful men. But the reality is that while we may not all agree with “sponsor culture,” all girls and young women need to be protected from all forms of violence. All women have a right to life.
Some people respond to the violence against young women in Kenya by asking whether young women are becoming too self-aware and ambitious for their own good. Maybe that’s the wrong question. Maybe young men don’t feel empowered enough to handle today’s modern young woman.
As a peace advocate, I am inspired by the quote from American tennis player Arthur Ashe, “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”
There is an urgent need for a conversation to address Kenya’s patriarchal culture. We must create awareness and champion an end to the violence targeted at Kenya’s ambitious young women. I believe that security experts and practitioners can address this from a policy perspective by developing peace interventions that complement today’s urban culture.
After all is said and done, we need to create a safe future for our sisters and daughters, who will inherit our determination to be the best that they can be.
This story was published as part of the Future of Security Is Women digital event and is sponsored by our partner Our Secure Future. World Pulse runs Story Awards year round—share your story with us, and you could be our next Featured Storyteller! Learn more.