Girls at Kenya School

NAIROBI, Kenya (WOMENSENEWS)–Sixteen-year-old Redempta Syombua knows she is “really lucky,” one of the 22 percent of Kenyan girls currently enrolled in secondary school.

From Mathare, a shantytown on the outskirts of Nairobi, Syombua wouldn’t be in school without her scholarship. Her 18-year-old sister Rosemary had to drop out of school for two years and now attends only in starts and stops for lack of school fees.

Before January, when Kenya’s newly elected government implemented Free Primary Education, 12-year-old Faith Katheu would have had to do the same. She and her 5-year-old sister are orphans, a group often stigmatized in a country where an estimated 890,000 children have lost their parents to HIV/AIDS.

Katheu, who dropped out of school in 1999 after her mother became sick, now attends Mbagathi Primary, in a special class for older students who have re-enrolled since the start of the no-fees policy.

“This free education has done something,” marvels Jane Ndunge, Redempta Syombua’s mother, from the outskirts of Nairobi, where poverty forces many girls to leave school before eighth grade to become breadwinners or caregivers. “Right now, even those who are housemaids, even those who dropped, most of them have gone back to school.”

Some 1.2 million children flooded Kenyan primary schools in January, when the National Rainbow Coalition abolished fees in an attempt to fulfill, within its first hundred days of office, one of its major campaign promises. Supported by grants from the World Bank, UNICEF and Department for International Development, the policy was welcomed by the public. Figures from 1990 to 1998 show the percentage of Kenyan children in primary school actually dropped and the country’s combined primary and secondary enrollment rate rested at only 34 percent.

Yet the question remains as to whether those who have re-enrolled in school will be able to stay. Despite national statistics that show narrowing disparities, girls in Kenya still receive less education than boys, particularly in the northeastern provinces, on the coast, and in the Nairobi slums.

Early Marriage, Genital Mutilation Limit Learning

Though reduced in the last decade, early marriage and female genital mutilation are rites that often mark withdrawal from school. Motherhood is still a common cause of Kenyan girls dropping out or being expelled. In 1993, 55 percent of adolescent girls were mothers.

“Previously, more boys were taken to school than girls,” says Ndunge, who stopped school in seventh grade. “These days, people have realized that teaching girls is just as important; the only problem is the resources.”

As a single-mother in Mathare, Ndunge knows about scarce resources. Her family of seven lives in one room made of mud, without electricity or running water. She has a small business selling vegetables, but doesn’t make enough to pay for secondary school fees. Her third daughter, Redempta, is one of the five students sponsored yearly by Maendeleo Ya Wanawake Organization, an organization focused on uplifting women.

“Of course she’ll be the first one (in the family) to finish school,” says Nduge proudly. “And maybe the last.”

While the numbers in secondary school haven’t changed, Nairobi’s primary school enrollment has skyrocketed, with girls especially benefiting. However, it’s only a start.

“Despite the fact that education is free, there are so many other things that will hinder the girls from performing well,” says Anne Mukunya, the head teacher at Mbagathi Primary, where the population of 600 has tripled since January. She says girls still need school meals so they won’t have to go home and cook for their families, sanitary pads so they won’t stay home when menstruating, more bathrooms, pit latrines for when water pipes are disabled by seasonal flooding and perhaps most important, school uniforms.

“If you told the girl to come without a uniform, (she) will not last a month in school,” predicts Mukunya. The teacher says that many students trek the longer distance to Mbagathi because its uniform is cheaper than other schools, and can easily be obtained second-hand. New, it costs about $7.50 for a tunic and blouse, a little more than Ndunge’s monthly rent.

The Ministry of Education has made it clear that students without uniforms should not be turned away. Yet, for girls, the stigma of having even a torn uniform is enough to discourage class participation or even attendance. Teachers say shy Faith Katheu is made more so by the patch clearly visible on the seat of her tunic when she stands to answer a question.

Girls and boys returning to school after having left for several years are already made conspicuous by their age. That’s why Mukunya has placed Katheu in a class with 41 other returners, many of them girls working as maids, whose median age seems to be 13. Their teacher says some have lied, claiming to be younger, so as not to be sent away.

Attitudes Remain Unchanged

Government and donor money also may not be sufficient to address teacher attitudes, which Kenya’s Ministry of Education identified as one of the factors hindering girls. They found teachers allowing boys to bully girls in class, assigning more menial chores to girls and awarding more prizes to boys.

The idea that it is less important to educate girls is still prevalent among many communities. At Nairobi’s buzzing downtown market, Jane Wanjiru carries her infant son in a bundle on her back while asking shoppers for change. She had to stop two years into secondary school when her church sponsorship dried up but doesn’t resent that her younger brother, in his third year of secondary school, is still being sponsored.

If she had to choose between educating a daughter or a son, she would choose the boy: “A girl will not care for me. A boy is better than a girl.”

“A girl will get a husband,” explains Susan Wanjiru, from the same tribe. She is also begging in the market with her son. When her mother died, she had to drop out one year before completing primary school. If forced to choose, she, too, would educate a boy over a girl. Yet in a country where 62 percent of the population earns under $2 a day and jobs are scarce, she views the question skeptically: “It’s better to have work than be educated.”

Nicole Leistikow, a freelance writer and news editor for, is currently based in New Delhi.

For more information:

Maendeleo Ya Wanawake Organization:

UNICEF–Girls’ Education: