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Kenya: Regional disparities threaten progress towards education for all
“The environment is so harsh here,” says Michael Kibet, a District Officer in Lokichoggio. “There is not enough food or water. These are major issues for the schools.”
With a national primary enrolment rate near 80 per cent, Kenya is making significantly better progress in education than many of its East African neighbors. But on the arid plains of Turkana District, drought and poverty have combined to make education the exception rather than the rule.
Sixty per cent of children in the district do not attend school. Out of a population of nearly half a million people, about 3,000 children advanced to the secondary level last year. Less than a third of these were girls.
Dangerously overcrowded facilities compound the problem. At a boarding school in nearby Lodwar, the lucky students sleep four to a single bed – while the less fortunate spread blankets outside.
Yet girls like Rebecca, a student in her last year of primary school at Lodwar, say that the sacrifices are worth it. “I would rather be in school,” says Rebecca, nodding at her cramped dormitory. “I can learn here. And at home, there is not enough to eat.”
School feeding programmes have proved to be among the most effective means to keep girls in the classroom. The World Food Programme and UNICEF are together providing UNIMIX, a high-protein porridge, to schools throughout the district.
For many children, the meals are the only reliable source of food, and a strong incentive for families to send their daughters to school.
Enrolment has also shot up where strategies are in place to make schools safer and healthier for girls. At Lokichoggio Mixed Primary School, the only boarding school in the area, girls are first to receive mattresses, beds, and mosquito nets – a policy that has resulted in a rapid increase in girls’ enrolment.
Meanwhile, efforts to improve infrastructure have been paired with social mobilization projects, in which community leaders, including chiefs and religious leaders, meet to discuss issues around girls’ education.
Since the advent of free primary education in 2003, throngs of children have gone to school all over the country, some for the first time. Yet the welcome influx of students has overwhelmed the capacity of many educational systems to respond.
At Rebecca’s school in Lodwar, girls’ enrolment has increased by nearly 400 per cent, from 277 students in 1997 to 1,056 in 2005. At Lokichoggio Girls’ Primary School, there is one book for every three students. Latrines are overflowing, and the closest water supply is a kilometre away.
In part because parents are especially reluctant to send girls to schools where conditions are poor, the gender gap in Turkana has increased since 2003. Today there are only 18,000 girls in primary school compared to nearly 28,000 boys.
If Turkana is to match the progress being made in other parts of Kenya, large-scale projects to improve facilities will have to be implemented.
“We need more teachers, more food, more beds,” says Michael Kibet. “And more schools.”