Recently, the Daily Nation reported on a study released by the World Economic Forum, which showed that while Kenya has some of the best primary school enrolment rates, with “near-parity” of girls and boys, that parity begins to disappear as they go secondary school.
While Kenya might view its high enrolment of girls in primary schools as a success story, it’s not yet time to celebrate. Not until the government is able to break down the old barriers that prevent girls from completing their education.
I recently visited Lerata Primary School in Samburu County, near where I live. My aim was to get a better understanding of the realities on the ground.
Lerata is a typical government school in the country’s drylands. There, like in so many other places, more girls than boys initially enrol in primary school.
But this begins to change by Standard Four as we begin seeing more boys than girls in the upper classes, which begs the question: ‘Where do girls go?’
The reasons include gender inequality, culture and economic status. Too often, in our culture, women are treated as beasts of burden.
Girls are expected to do additional labour that boys aren’t, resulting in them missing school. Additionally, when many a man has a daughter, he sees more cows or wealth. The government can help communities to enrol more girls into school, but quite often from the moment a girl child is seen as marriageable, negotiations for her to become someone’s wife will begin, resulting in her leaving school.
In Kenya, one in four girls is married off before her 18th birthday, but the situation is worse in the rural drylands, where girls as young as nine are married off.
There are some Kenyans who believe this problem is blown out of proportion by non-governmental organisations (NGOs).
A visit to a rescue centre in the drylands where many of these girls have found refuge confirms the reality of these retrogressive practices
Girls are also unable to access education as they get older because of lack of sanitary napkins. One might miss, on average, five school days a month because of menstruation. This means 15 learning days lost per term—which over a year works out to a month-and-a-half of learning as they cannot afford menstrual pads.
Indeed, the government has made a lot of progress. It should be praised for enrolling more girls into schools and passing new Marriage Bill that outlaws marriage below the age of 18 and imposes stern penalties on anyone who gets betrothed to an underage person. Also welcome is the plan to distribute sanitary pads to schoolgirls.
But these measures don’t go far enough. The distribution fails to reach many schools, in the drylands. Properly equipped and secured dormitories are needed, especially for girls who travel long distances. School facilities should be improved and water and proper sanitation provided.
While the laws outlawing child marriages have been passed, not enough is being done to apply them. Often times, the authorities do not enforce the laws.
Local culture is allowed to supersede the law because officials from these communities fear running afoul of the affected families.
Knowledge is power, so we need to do a better job of keeping track of our students. A complete database of learners is needed in all public and private primary and secondary schools.
It should be updated regularly, with each child being traced from enrolment until graduation. Dropouts should be investigated, and if possible, returned to school.
The government and NGOs have done a commendable job of enrolling girls in school. But this is not enough. Now they must work to make sure girls can finish school and achieve their dreams.
Mr Omar is co-founder and Kenya programme director for the Boma Project, responsible for developing and implementing the Rural Entrepreneur Access Project (REAP).
- Girls are expected to do additional labour that boys aren’t, resulting in them missing school.
- In Kenya, one in four girls is married off before her 18th birthday, but the situation is worse in the rural drylands, where girls as young as nine are married off