Government and private groups work to educate Kenya’s girls

Imbirikani Girls High School in Kenya. Photo used with permission of Imbirikani Girls High School.

DALLAS, March 22, 2014 — Experts believe that education is a powerful factor in alleviating poverty, improving public health, and promoting healthy societies. However, in much of the world, girls — and poor girls in particular — have difficulty gaining access even to primary education.

The United Nations Organization for Education, Science and Culture (UNESCO) recently released its Education for All Gender Summary, which notes that “among the poorest households, only 23% of Kenyan girls both complete primary education and achieve the basics.”

Kenyan National Assembly Representative and chairwoman of the Education Committee Sabina Chege recently attended meetings at the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women in New York. There she met with representatives from other countries and exchanged ideas about how to meet the challenges of increasing education access for their poorest citizens and especially girls.

Representative Chege said the main challenges in extending access to girls are cultural obstacles — such as early marriages for girls — and poverty. “When the family has to make a choice on who gets the schooling if they don’t have enough money, then of course the boys are more preferred because of the cultural practices,” Chege said.

According to the U.N. Gender Summary report, “Ensuring that girls stay in school is one of the most effective ways to avert child marriage. If all girls had a primary education in sub-Saharan Africa and South and West Asia, child marriage would fall by 14%.” Secondary education reduces early marriage by 64 percent. “While just 4% of literate girls are married by age 15 in sub-Saharan Africa … more than one in five of those who are not literate are married by this age in sub-Saharan Africa.”

Another poverty-related issue limiting girls’ access to education is lack of basic hygiene products. Because the poorest girls don’t have access to feminine hygiene products, they can miss three or four days of school every month. Chege said the Kenyan government is beginning to attempt to address this problem as well.

While in the U.S., Chege also met with officials from the Neema Huruma Foundation, which built and supports the Imbirikani Girls High School in Southeast Kenya. The Dallas-based organization established by Clyde and Betsy Jackson is addressing the need for access to secondary education for girls in the Maasai region of Kenya. The boarding school began with 40 girls in 2006, and now serves 300 girls at the campus about 100 miles southeast of Nairobi.

The school is associated with the Presbyterian Church in East Africa, and many of the girls attend the Presbyterian University in East Africa upon graduating high school. Bruce Epps, the director of development for the foundation, says individual sponsors help to pay the $650 annual tuition and fees for 30 to 40 percent of the students. Most of the support comes from the Dallas area, including considerable support from Highland Parks Presbyterian Church and some businesses.

Chege said the financial support that is given to the Imbirikani students is only part of the benefit they receive. “Not only scholarship, but they mentor them into leadership. When they complete the school, maybe they have a scholarship to go to higher education.”

Both Chege and Epps say the cultural bias that favors boys over girls is changing as more girls are educated and in return help their families and communities. “You see now in families where both girls and boys went to school and the girls are the ones who are now supporting their families more than the boys,” Chege said.

Epps tells of one student from the Imbirikani school who has returned to her local village as a teacher. “She’s been doing her student teaching at a public primary school not far from the school. She’s going to be going back to her home village and giving back to the community as a teacher there.”

There is a great need for teachers for all of Kenya’s students. There is a shortage of teachers, textbooks and reading material. Kenya’s success in expanding education has also brought its own challenges. “Because of the huge numbers that have joined our primary and secondary schools, which is really a good thing, the challenge comes with the infrastructure and the facilities available,” Chege said. According the CIA’s World Fact Book, 42 percent of the country’s population is under 15 years old.

Chege is looking for entrepreneurs who would be willing to partner with Kenya and set up an entrepreneurship academy. She feels that there is a great need to train people in entrepreneurship skills. “We feel a big challenge on the entrepreneurship skills where we have our students graduating the university where they have their basics, but they don’t have the skills. We need to really encourage them you don’t have to wait to go get employment in an office, but you can use the skills for yourself and you become your own employer.”

Directors of the Imbirikani High School are looking at expanding the school’s facilities and teaching opportunities. Currently they are doing a study to see if a polytechnic school for girls and boys would be feasible. Additionally they are looking for ways to help the school become self sufficient and perhaps start a small business incubator and micro-finance unit on the campus. The goal is to eventually be able serve 450 students at the school.

For further reading visit the Imbirikani Girls High School website.

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