Top of the class: helping adolescent girls return to school

Teacher Hellen starts an English language class at Namoruputh Primary School
© UNICEF Kenya/2021/Lameck Orina

This story first appeared in The Star newspaper.

Sixteen-year-old Christine Aleper sits in a Grade 4 English class at Namoruputh Primary School, in Turkana County. It is a hot, dry afternoon and a sudden gust of wind blows dust through the open windows. Christine is much taller than the other children in the class, who range from 9 to 11-years old, and the only one wearing a blue and white school uniform. But the fact that she is learning English at all is remarkable, given her background. Standing by the board, her teacher, Hellen, explains the different types of articles – a, an, the – and when to use them. She asks for examples and Christina stands and reads out: “a ball, an apple, the sun.”

Life could have been very different for Christine. Turkana is a pastoralist area where people lead nomadic, tribal lives that have in many ways remained unchanged for centuries. Girls are traditionally less valued than boys and child marriage is a common solution to poverty. Christine was pledged to a local trader at a young age by her father. She was made to wear a traditional bead necklace that indicates a girl is ready to be married. But following an attempted rape, she took off her necklace and ran away from home.

“I did not like living at home because my life was full of hardship,” she says. “I had to walk more than 30 minutes every day to fetch water. I looked after our family’s goats and was due to be married off to an old man. I asked my father if I could go to school but he refused. That’s why I left home and came to town. My father followed and tried to convince me to go back but I refused. He even beat me. Then he left.”

After the break with her father, Christine lived in Namoruputh on her own, trying to make ends meet by brewing and selling beer. She was living in poverty, without a mattress to sleep on or a regular source of food. But she still nurtured a dream of returning to school.

“One day the local chief was speaking at a community meeting about the importance of education,” she continues. “That’s how I got the urge to go back to school. I remembered a song that says school is more important than goats. So I came to this school and met the headteacher. She was very welcoming. I’m happy to be back at school because I’ve learned how to read and speak Kiswahili. I can go to Lodwar town because I can read the matatu [bus] signs. When I’ve finished my studies, I would like to get an office job.”

Christina learns about the different types of articles in English class
© UNICEF Kenya/2021/Lameck Orina

Out of school children

Unfortunately, Christine’s case is far from exceptional, but things are starting to change. With funds from Educate a Child, UNICEF is supporting the Government of Kenya to bring more girls back to school, through the Out of School Children Programme. A baseline survey has been conducted in 16 counties to understand the reasons why children, including girls, are not enrolling or staying in school. Next, the project aims to reach 250,000 out of school children in 16 counties, working with community leaders, parents and teachers to bring them back to school.

“Every child has the right to an education and that includes girls just as much as boys,” UNICEF Kenya Chief of Education Marilyn Hoar says. “We also know that educating girls like Christine can help lift families out of poverty, as educated parents are more likely to get well paid jobs and educate their own children in turn. Unfortunately, following the COVID-19 related school closures last year, we have seen more girls drop out of school due to teenage pregnancy, child marriage and domestic labour. So this programme is more urgent and important than ever.”

In addition to COVID-19, droughts in Kenya’s arid and semi-arid land (ASAL) counties, including Turkana, are pushing more families into poverty and girls out of school. “We want to ensure that schools are welcoming places for girls and support poorer families to withstand droughts and economic shocks, including through emergency cash transfer programmes,” Marilyn adds.

Children with UNICEF school bags at St Monica’s Girls School in Lodwar, Turkana
© UNICEF Kenya/2021/Lameck Orina

Champion chiefs

In Turkana, UNICEF is working with the County Government, traditional chiefs and other partners to change perceptions of the role and value of girls. One of these champions is Matthew Koringang Lemuya, Assistant Chief for Namoruputh. He received training on community engagement and has made it his personal mission to end child marriage and bring girls back to school.

“Traditionally, the community tends to think of girls as assets for getting a dowry,” Matthew explains. “There is also stereotyping, and women are looked down upon. Parents don’t think it’s worth sending girls to school. I go village-to-village and house-to-house, to inform the parents. I tell them, firstly it is against the law to take your girls out of school for marriage. Secondly, I make the economic argument. I tell them if you do not educate your girls, your family will remain poor. I give them my honest advice as a leader.”

Matthew has lost track of exactly how many girls he has returned to school. “One time, I brought back six girls from a village, another time 11,” he says. “Some of them have completed primary school and gone on secondary. Now there are almost as many girls in school as boys in this area. This makes me proud because I feel that I have performed well as a chief and helped people in the community to change their lives for the better.”

Christina’s teacher Hellen after class at Namoruputh Primary School
© UNICEF Kenya/2021/Lameck Orina

Christina’s teacher Hellen Njenga says that she has made tremendous progress since returning to school. “When Christina first came to class, she knew nothing. She was very shy and would look down all the time,” Hellen says. “Now she has improved a lot. She can talk Kiswahili fluently. She likes English and Maths and is very focused. I hope and pray that she gets somewhere in life, so she can show her father and other people here in the village that she has potential.”

It is clear that attitudes towards girls and women are changing in Turkana, and more girls like Christina are getting the education they deserve. But the twin pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic and droughts driven by climate change are threatening to roll back progress. This makes initiatives like the Out of School Children programme crucial to keeping the country on track and ensuring that every girl in Kenya has a bright, educated future.

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