This post was authored by Katy Bullard, intern for the Coalition for Adolescent Girls
In honor of Malala Day, youth contributor Hamna discussed on Girls’ Globe the barriers to and great power of girls’ education in Pakistan. Her words resonate with the significant obstacles that girls in Nyanza and Kibera, Kenya face in pursuing their education and becoming leaders and catalysts for change.
Many Kenyan girls are forced to confront the lingering sentiment that “girls cannot be successful… girls are not so much clever and are weak,” as one student described it. Though families are usually, and increasingly, open to the idea of educating girls, those with limited resources are far more likely to send their sons to school than their daughters. Primary school is technically free in Kenya, but ‘hidden’ fees and costs like uniforms and exams can be prohibitively expensive, so universal primary education has not yet been realized. Even when girls are enrolled in school, housework still falls disproportionately on them. Their chores and responsibilities caring for younger siblings can interfere with their study time, limit their attendance at school, and become so overwhelming that they may drop out.
Furthermore, secondary schooling is not free, making post-primary education far less accessible, especially for girls. With few other options, early marriage is not uncommon for adolescent girls in Kenya, especially in rural areas.
Financial pressures force many girls to choose between two enormous risks: drop out of school or engage in transactional sex to try to earn enough money to cover the costs of their education. Along Lake Victoria, for instance, girls may have sex with fishermen (who typically have the most currency to spend) to cover their school fees, or simply to afford sanitary pads to wear to school. Especially given their limited access to contraception, girls not only risk pregnancy, but also HIV/AIDS, particularly in Nyanza, which has the highest HIV rates in the country.
These risks often continue at school. Though school should be one of the safest places in the world for girls, it is not uncommon for male teachers to coerce female students into sex. This is a devastating violation of girls’ rights and dignity as they try to pursue their right to education.
Despite the major barriers to and potential risks in attending school, girls remain committed to their education. Looking to the example of accomplished women in their country, students see their education as the pathway to their own social justice work. “In history,” one female student explained, “there are some girls who learned and now they are great people to society, like the great Wangari Maathai.” Girls themselves are their own best advocates, and their voices lend an essential perspective on the immense value of educating girls. A girl from Nyanza wanted to tell the world that “girls have ability to make and change the life of their community when they’re given time to work hard.” As we celebrate Malala and her accomplishments, we can look to the example millions of girls around the world who pursue their education in the face of enormous, and often dangerous, obstacles. All continue their schooling with the same aspiration: to improve their own lives and the lives of those around them.