By Krystal Midega

Betty Mulavi runs a robotics activity at Sahajanad Special School in Kilifi

Betty Mulavi runs a robotics activity at Sahajanad Special School in Kilifi

Betty Mulavi is no stranger to the bias people with disabilities face in accessing education and job opportunities.

“I had to hide my disability just so I could attend STEM classes in school,” she explains in her short film for the Girls Opportunity Alliance (GOA).

She didn’t let the naysayers deter her. The innate tenacity she carries propelled her through both undergraduate and Master’s degrees in Special Needs Education and finally to the impactful work she does at The Action Foundation (TAF).

“My research at the university opened my eyes to how deeply rooted the negative attitudes were towards people with disabilities. I wasn’t alone, and, in fact, many had it so much worse than I did.”

And so her passion was born. She wanted to advocate for and mentor other girls with disabilities, paying forward the empowerment she received through higher education.

Mentoring Girls with Disabilities at TAF

Two girls engaging with a robotics kit

Two girls at The Action Foundation taking part in a robotics session

Through TAF’s IBUKA Girls In STEM Program, Betty combines her dual passion for STEM and mentorship, specifically for women and girls with disabilities.

A typical day in her work as a mentor involves talking with the girls about their experiences, affirming them positively, and of course, teaching and sharing with them basic stem skills according to each one’s capability.

What Equity Looks Like

The IBUKA Girls In STEM Program meets the girls where their capabilities lie, which is in line with the 2023 International Women’s Day theme, “Embrace Equity.” It goes beyond simply offering digital skills training. The activities are tailored to suit each girl’s ability and compensate for their limitations.

For example, girls with visual impairment are encouraged to and often gravitate towards robotics. On the flip side, those with hearing impairment get a kick out of interactive storytelling through Scratch—the programming language developed at MIT Media Lab.

The program also builds other skills, such as collaborative learning, problem-solving, and multimodal learning through Makey-Makey, a 21st-century invention kit that enables students to create their own methods of interfacing with a computer.

For Betty, the experience is life-changing as she gets to see the girls gain confidence with each skill set that they lock down, coming out of their shells and blossoming in unexpected ways.

Betty adds, “Once they assemble a simple car, you can see their confidence grow. They say if I can build a car, then physics isn’t so hard!”

What the girls learn permeates their school and social life as well. Betty shares the story of one of her girls attending Father Ouderaa Secondary School, whose experience with IBUKA awakened her love of physics. She went on to excel in her final exams, becoming the first girl in the school’s history to be top of her class in physics.

“Our goal is to get them into STEM early, when they’re still in school, opening up a world of opportunity and shared experience for them to borrow from and improve their own lives,” Betty explains.

Building Equitable Solutions Requires Partnership

Without a doubt, TAF is doing it right. Over and above exposing the girls with disabilities to STEM early on, TAF is also working with schools to help them integrate science and technology into school life and the curriculum.

To that end, the Foundation, with the support of Girls Opportunity Alliance, has partnered with schools in Kilifi County to set up a STEM Centre of Excellence for underserved communities.

400 girls with disabilities between the ages of 13 and 18 will get access to coding, robotics, virtual reality and industry-school linkages as they prepare to begin their tertiary education and gain job market readiness. 

The STEM Hub has already increased retention rates for girls who are motivated to stay in school so that they can access the STEM facilities.

Building partnerships with teachers, school administrations, parents, policymakers, and other stakeholders is the only way to cover all the bases as regards ensuring equitable access to digital learning for women and girls.

Often, the impact of these partnerships transcends the career path, as in the case of one TAF girl who had been a victim of gender-based violence (GBV). The digital literacy skills she gained enabled her to reach out and share her struggles with a friend on Facebook. Consequently, she received assistance from a community-based organisation advocating for victims of GBV and finally got her life back.

Reinforcing the validity of this, TAF was one of 34 organisations selected for the Impact Challenge for Women and Girls and received funding and support in advancing the economic empowerment of women and girls. Since receiving this funding in 2021, TAF has reached over 2000 girls in special needs secondary schools in Kenya. 

Upon announcement of the award, Lorraine Twohill, Chief Marketing Officer at Google, said in The Economist:

“… I was privileged to have a good education, so I understand how important it is. That is why I am proud that the Impact Challenge for Women and Girls will provide funding and other support to The Action Foundation… They are working to remove barriers and change the lives of girls in Kenya.”

In the Words of Her Role Model…

Betty speaking at the launch of the Obama Foundation Get Her There Campaign

Betty speaking at the launch of the Obama Foundation Get Her There Campaign in New York

Betty looks up to Michelle Obama, who has been a mentor through GOA, encouraging her to be the best version of herself and continue the transformative work she’s doing within TAF.

During the launch of the Get Her There Campaign on 25th October 2022, Michelle Obama said:

“Every girl is born with a flame within. They want to contribute, to learn, to build, to make change … That flame can be fuelled by love, hope, possibilities, and resources.”

Like her role mentor, Betty believes in the life-changing value of empowering women and girls with disabilities through education and STEM.

She has big dreams of seeing more organizations step in and form a chain of equitable action with TAF.

“We can’t do it alone. We need more organizations to commit to this work. Equally important, I hope to see more girls who go through IBUKA coming back to be advocates for those who will follow behind them,” Betty concludes.

Creating equitable access to opportunities is work that requires each of us to challenge the status quo, call out the biases and act collectively to seek out inclusion. TAF is committed, are you?