‘Self-esteem was so low. Look at them now’ : the scheme getting Kenya’s girls back to school

·5 min read
<span>Photograph: REUTERS/Alamy</span>
Photograph: REUTERS/Alamy

For much of her girlhood, Lucy Koriang* would spend her days taking the family’s goat herd out, walking for several kilometres a day, looking for the best grazing spots.

Being a goat herder was not a job she enjoyed or chose, especially in the unbearably high temperatures of Isiolo county, northern Kenya, where she lives. Her father, like most parents in Ngaremara village, saw little point in taking his children to school. Moving from the shelter of one thorny acacia tree to another, the 13-year-old would get lost in her thoughts, dreaming of a different life.

“Then one day they came and took me away from the field. It was a kidnap,” Lucy said. Four men, all in their mid-twenties, grabbed her and carried her off to become a wife to one of them. “The goats were over there,” she says, pointing to a spot in the distance. “They never asked me anything. I think I got pregnant that same day.”

In Ngaremara, similar stories of early marriages, unintended motherhood and perpetual poverty are commonplace. Stories of disillusioned and fearful girls denied their right to education and instead married off to men they never loved or even knew, men often two or three times their age.

These girls become part of the statistics – among the 260 million boys and girls who, according to British prime minister Boris Johnson “were being denied the schooling that should be their birthright” even before the Covid pandemic.

This week Johnson and Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, host the Global Education Summit, with the ambitious aim of facilitating a forum for leaders to pledge money that can be used to provide education in marginalised communities like Ngaremara. They hope to raise $5bn (£3.6bn) at a time when the UK is slashing its overseas aid budget and other nations face pressing needs on all sides.

Samuel Kiragu oversees standards at the education department in Isiolo county. He says there are probably 7,000 children in the county who have either dropped out of school or never started. Most are girls.

“It is about poverty and outdated cultural practices,” he says. “There are those who wish to be in class but lack access to education. In any case, we want to help the community understand that education is a basic right for the children.”

Government resources are tight, and the girls in Isiolo are among 5,000 out-of-school girls from marginalised communities and low-income households benefiting from the Education for Life initiative, which is supported by the UK.

It’s a relatively small, five-year project which runs until 2023 and targets girls aged between 10–19 years. About 70% never enrolled in school and 30% have had some formal education but dropped out.

Related: Nine and looking after the family: the children working to survive in Malawi

In Isiolo, 1,034 girls, many of them mothers, are enrolled in 26 “catchup” centres, where they spend 6–9 months learning basic literacy skills. Similar programmes in Garissa, Kilifi, Migori and Kisumu counties are working with another 4,000 girls.

The literacy and life skills provided in these centres are intended to facilitate those aged 14 or under getting back into formal elementary schools, while those aged 15 years and above will be integrated into informal education or employment.

But breaking the deeply entrenched cultural barriers is no easy task for local organisations.

“We got men here asking, ‘why are you targeting the girls who are our source of wealth? Why invest in girls who will finally get married and leave home?’ Some would also hide children with disabilities,” says Patricia Makau, Education for Life coordinator at Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) Kenya, one of the implementing partners.

“You get around this by organising community forums to get acceptance from the patriarchs. We have to be as gentle as possible so as not to upset the fragile social balance. Though most of the underage girls are married, empowering them means they can become assets to their families.”

In one such centre at Atan village, Janet Ekura, the education facilitator, was jotting the day’s lesson on a whiteboard – the term “teacher” is avoided for its hierarchical tone. Since January 2021, Ekura has been taking care of about 30 girls between the ages of 14–19.

During a break in the lessons, the young mothers dash off to a nearby homestead to check on their children, who are left under the care of a group of elderly women.

Ekura says the girls were scared and shy when the centres opened. “You have 19-year-olds who could not even write their names, make a telephone call using a cell phone – since they could not tell one contact from another, or input phone security features. Self-esteem was at an all-time low. Look at them now, they are handling basic arithmetic and language lessons. They can now speak out. Education is about confidence.”

Seated in another corner is Agnes Epong, an administrator. She too had to overcome the community’s stereotypes about women to become one of the mentors. After the lesson, Epong sits down with a group of about 10 girls, mentoring them on life skills.

“You were married early. Some of you are mothers and you can’t change [that]. Losing hope will not take you anywhere. But education will,” she says. The girls listen intently to every word. Epong has got used to the threats from some fathers and other local men who felt that their “old-age insurance” was slipping away. “We still prefer dialogue over force,” she says.

Persuasion has won local hearts, including that of John Eshua, 70, a village elder whose son is married to one of the girls in the centre. In Ngaremara, Eshua goes by his slang name maneno mingi or “the talkative one” in Swahili. He is not afraid of speaking up for the girls. “We should stop substituting a girl with a cow. Why should 10-year-old girls have babies? I told my son to let the girl get some education first before other social engagements. The girls are the light of the community.”

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting