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September 2003
Education for Girls: Seeding the Future in Kenya

By Mia MacDonald



In schools in the remote Kiunga National Marine Reserve, a protected area on Kenya’s northern coast rich with mangrove forests and ocean life that is also home to several thousand people, it is not unusual for eighth grade classes to have no girls in them. Scenes like this are replayed throughout rural regions of the southern world. Globally, about 113 million children do not attend primary (grade) school, and 60 percent of them are girls. Girls drop out for a number of reasons. Their parents can’t afford the fees and don’t see a payoff in a daughter’s education (whereas they may make sacrifices to pay for boys’ schooling). Girls may be needed to help with housework or, and quite often, they are getting married or having a child and many school systems look askance at married students or those who are mothers.

Dropout rates move upward as girls age: in Kenya, only about a third of all girls are attending secondary (high) school; in Ethiopia, about four percent are. While the situation can appear bleak, it is not universally so. Most southern African countries have high rates of schooling for boys and, increasingly, girls. In South Africa, nearly 90 percent of girls are enrolled in high school.

And even in a place as off the grid as Kiunga (no electricity, no running water, few roads, few jobs apart from small-scale fishing, limited healthcare and bare bones schools), change is coming. For several years, the World Wildlife Fund, in partnership with the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), has supported secondary school scholarships for local youth, almost all of which, until recently, went to boys, because only they had passed the required exams. In recent years, though, girls have been completing secondary school, too, and several have done very well on the exams. WWF’s girls’ scholarship program is now supporting six of these girls to attend secondary schools outside the Reserve where the quality of education is better.

The scholarship program in Kiunga is one of six WWF has launched in areas it considers priorities for biodiversity conservation (the others are in Bhutan, Madagascar, Nepal, Tanzania, and the Philippines). The goal is to, through education, support expanded roles for girls and women in conservation and natural resource management. A related goal is to achieve the lower fertility rates seen consistently in more educated women (thereby reducing pressures on local resources).

Without the support of the WWF scholarship, which provides 70 percent of school fees (with parents paying the rest), it’s unlikely any of the six girls from Kiunga would attend secondary school. As part of the scholarship program, the girls, along with boys who have also received scholarships from WWF, attend a week-long “conservation camp” at the WWF/KWS project headquarters. There they get hands-on conservation experience—restoring coral, counting turtle eggs—as well as conservation education. They also learn to snorkel, and many see live coral for the first time, even though they’ve lived on the Indian Ocean all their lives. “In our area, people were eating turtles. Now I know the importance of conserving turtles,” says Swabra Aboud, 16, about her camp experience. “I’ve educated the whole community by telling them it is not good to eat turtles.”

Fahima Shee, 19, and in her final year of school, has been to the conservation camp twice. Before she went, she’d never seen one of the giant sea turtles that live in the waters of the Reserve. Now, she says, “We pray for it [the turtle] to grow and come again…If you destroy the turtles and the coral reefs you are not going to have fish. The turtles will disappear.”

Despite the poverty and illiteracy of most of their parents, and the conservative Islamic tradition they’ve been brought up in, the girls who’ve received scholarships have considerable aspirations. All plan on having careers (one wants to be a pilot, another to study marine systems) outside of the Reserve where paid jobs are scarce, especially for women. On the importance of girls’ education and moves toward gender equality, they are voluble. Education for girls is important, Fahima Shee says, “to develop our area [Kiunga]… It’s also important for ourselves. If you are a girl who is educated you will be a very important person in society. You can uplift yourself and your family.”

“If a woman has an education, we shall be the same as men. They will not rule us,” says Somoe Swaleh, 18. “You will know and understand more and discuss with them. If you are a woman you will work hard and be employed the same as men.” As a result, she says, women can have a “happier, better life…and women will not be dependent on men.”

The local community is working to ensure that more girls come to and stay in school. Teachers spoke of how in barazzas, weekly community meetings, parents are urged to send and keep girls in school. They also try, with some success, to convince families to ensure daughters stay in school when they’ve proposed dropping out. “Gender equality” was on the lips of several community leaders in Kiunga, all of whom happen to be men. A number of teachers and the local sub-chief have participated in gender training, provided both by government agencies and the WWF/KWS project. One tangible result: former “head masters” of local schools now use the less gendered term “head teacher.”

The local senior assistant chief (a civil servant) and father of two daughters (and two sons), was expansive on the topic of gender and women, taking his local perspective global. “Sometimes a woman can be more clever than her husband,” Mohamed Aboud said. “A woman can give a good opinion…we are fighting for equality.”

Mia MacDonald
is a policy analyst and writer based in Brooklyn. She headed a review of WWF’s population and gender activities, during which she spent several days in the Kiunga National Marine Reserve.


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