Educating girls in Kenya – The need for quantitative and qualitative change.

*By Julie Wang’ombe

I work at Akili Dada, an international award winning NGO based in Kenya and focused on developing the next generation of African women leaders. Now that’s a big, big task. One that requires a multifaceted approach and global collaborations. One of the many ways we are trying to carry it out, is through a scholarship program which invests in high achieving primary school girls from underprivileged back grounds, giving them the financial means (i.e. scholarship) to continue their education at some of the top national girls schools in the country. To us, there’s an undeniable link between accessing education and accessing leadership opportunities, and we strive to be the bridge that connects young girls from underprivileged backgrounds to top positions of leadership.

So, who do we pick and how do we pick? 

By the time we select our scholars, they have already demonstrated that they have the rudimentary qualities; the head and the heart if you will, to become great leaders. Beyond looking for smart young ladies who scored highly in their Kenya Certificate of Primary Education exams, we look for young ladies who exhibit, in some measure, the moral qualities that are at the heart of good leadership. Qualities like diligence, empathy, compassion, honesty, resilience, integrity and a keen sense of responsibility for their families and communities. Then, we strive to hone these qualities, and channel them in ways that foster leadership.

The nature of our work puts us in direct contact with young girls for whom familial financial constraints pose a threat to continued education. When we recruit new scholars, we are confronted with some harsh realities that remain part and parcel of our society. Realities of drastic social inequalities that make it all too difficult for willing parents to educate their girl children.

In April, I and a number of staff returned from a set of site visits in Kisii and Bungoma. It was my first time participating in these visits. Here’s what I noticed: every single family we visited was willing to educate their children – including the girls. Every family had worked hard towards that end, sometimes taking loans and fundraising to meet that goal. In fact, each one of them had managed to enroll their girls in secondary school, albeit falling into arrears soon after. For these families, the barrier to sending their kids to secondary school was not a lack of willingness on their part, it was a lack of means. So, one of the biggest barriers we as an organization see as inhibiting the furtherance of girls education, is quite simply the cost of secondary education.

In African countries where so many families still live in poverty, the issue of education costs remains prominent. Yes there maybe need in many parts of Africa and the world to educate communities on the value of educating their girls, but empowering families to do this based on the assumption that if they can they will, has to be part of any sustainable solution to the challenge of girls access to secondary education.

For us, getting girls to secondary school is only half the battle; there are many other battles that need to be simultaneously fought. In Kenya for instance, we need to increase the quality of the education generally available as well as make it relevant to market needs; a current challenge in our country. We need to invest in creating an education system that produces globally competitive young people skilled in a myriad of different ways. We need to focus on enabling learning, fostering curiosity and ingenuity in young people and cultivating in them a love for life long learning – rather than simply emphasizing to them the need to pass their examinations. We need to see education holistically; as a means of developing people not just intellectually, but morally as well – as the next generation of citizens responsible for their communities, country’s and the world.

At Akili Dada, we see education in a holistic way. When our girls are mentored and get to talk about a myriad of life issues, from time management to coping with stress, to leadership to any number of other topics, big or small, we see that as education continued by other means. We insist that the girls in our scholarship program begin community service projects in their communities while they are scholars and in the process of running these projects, in the process of identifying community needs and meeting with stakeholders to better understand those needs and see how best they can be addressed, the girls receive a kind of education albeit one that is not formally examinable.

At Akili Dada, our vision for girls education is simple. We want a world where more families are able to enable their girls to access high quality, holistic secondary education. For that vision to come to pass, it’ll take the efforts of NGOs like ourselves, but also of other key stakeholders including the Government. For these stakeholders to play their part, there needs to be a wider understanding that investing in girls education is good for societies, for economies, for countries, and for the world. It is practically beneficial, and central to development efforts. That understanding is growing. We’re hoping that increasingly, when society is confronted with the gap that still needs to be bridged in terms of girls education, more people will cringe at the latent potential of our world that remains untapped and keeps our country and indeed our continent and world from attaining the heights it could. The more people cringe, the more rapid change we might see.

First blogged at WorldPulse in response to a call for contributions around the theme ‘what does secondary education mean to you.’ Today, less than a third of girls in Sub-Saharan Africa are enrolled in secondary education.