Come, Let’s Sweep This House
Kenya is a country famed for its rich natural resources, hospitality to guests, as well as the generosity of its people. However, behind those warm smiles are tears of its women and girls. They cry hot tears of pain and neglect. Most of the women in this community do not enjoy the full benefit of formal education.
The greatest challenge for most Kenyan women is the lack of female representation in key social and economic positions. When women are few in number in a forum, it is unlikely that their grievances will be addresses with the seriousness that it deserves. There are few Kenyan communities that have women as leaders in key government positions, besides the general outcry for gender equity. It is therefore unlikely that the problem of girls not attending school, or dropping out can be addressed in a male dominated parliament or even have the relevant bills passed.
This is an issue that is partly a making of the women themselves because most of these key positions are elective and, ironically statistics indicate that women are higher in number than men. Women must vote for their own into power in large numbers so that their voices are magnified and their grievances are felt when social decisions are made.
Cultural biasness eats through the core of the social fiber of most Kenyan communities. A majority of these communities are patriarchal and therefore the women are suppressed by taboos and beliefs that were designed by the forefathers of these societies to demean women. Women in most of these societies are culturally expected to be seen and not heard. They are also not expected to be part of the leadership structure of these communities. Sometimes the men in such communities do not value formal education and are therefore not willing to spend money on educating girls. These men are of the belief that girls are wealth in themselves, and therefore marry them off as early as at puberty so as for them to receive the highly priced dowry.
Even in matriarchal communities, the power of men is equally felt because usually the women have to just provide for the families fully, but not be the key decision makers. Women in culturally bias communities need to embrace formal education that exposes them to cultural diversity, and if possible inter-marry with people of other communities so as to neutralize the impact of some of these beliefs.
Although the numbers have significantly reduced over the years, but HIV/AIDS infection still has a great impact on the access of girls to education in Kenya. In homes where both parents are sick, on medication or dead, the elder children are expected to take care of their siblings and even take full responsibility of the home. It is unfortunate that sometimes the eldest child may be just about 5 years of age. It is worse when the child is a girl because she is usually subjected to the cultural gender expectations unlike her male counterparts.
Most girls in these situations are forced to drop out of school unlike if it is boys whom relatives step in to handle the situation. This is a serious matter by which authorities must address by encouraging parents to treat children in the same way irrespective of their sex. It is also important that communities are sensitized on the effects of HIV/AIDS.
Orphan children born with the HIV have special needs. The girls who have this virus will frequently miss school because of medical check-ups or to go collect their food rations from the suppliers. These girls need to be adopted or be in the care of responsible relatives so that they do not miss going to school often.
In the absence of all-round mentors, girls are not motivated to find value in formal education. These girls usually do not recognize their worth, and they are content with the positions that society has traditionally placed them into. In such communities, the girls are comfortable with being house-helps and eventual housewives besides being in polygamous marriages. They have absolutely nothing or no one to look up to in order to realize the potential of women. Such girls do not attend school because formal education, in their view, has never been an occupation that has benefitted any woman in their community.
All the women from these communities who are lucky to be educated were probably not raised there, and will therefore not give back to that particular society because they do not connect with it culturally. The educated women will mostly shy away from what they consider a ‘backward’ community and never want to be associated with it. It is our duty as women to encourage each other to embrace the beauty of the positive culture and environments of our motherland and not shy away in search for greener pastures. Let us realize that the ‘greener pastures’ were ‘watered’ by the residents of that community and that we too can water our own grass.
In Kenya, there are communities that are traditionally nomadic. These communities keep moving from one place to another in search for pasture and water for their livestock. It becomes very difficult for children, especially the girls to attend school in such circumstances. Even if the children attend school, it is extremely difficult for them to catch up with their counterparts in school from communities that have a stable lifestyle. In fact, most girls in these communities never attend school at all. Policy makers should come up with alternative lifestyles for such communities in order to reduce, or completely stop this nomadic life.
Peace is very important for the progress of any given community. In Kenya, there are communities that frequently have disrupted peace. People are always feeling insecure in these communities and are habitually in the hiding for their safety. In such communities, normal learning in schools is almost non-existent. The teachers are always hiding, as well as the students and their parents. Because the situation has been this way for generations, it is not easy for the residents to believe that they are safe even with the heavy presence of the police. In such circumstances, I recommend that the government should get an everlasting solution to the insecurity by getting to understand all the causes of peace disruption and uniting the members. It is also vital that they are frequently reminded of the benefits of peace.
We all have beliefs in one thing or another. It is our faith in what we believe in that our hope to attain our goals in life is either restored or dwindled. It may be archaic, but yes, there are communities that have deep beliefs in witchcraft and sorcery. These beliefs have unfortunately been turned into the pillars that hold the said communities, and it becomes almost impossible for a member to do anything without consulting the witchdoctors. In such communities, people are not confident to outshine others and generally give up on most of their progressive efforts for the fear of being bewitched. The girls do not attend school in such communities and get married at a very young age. Such communities need to be educated on the importance of formal education especially for the girls. It is only in the cultural exposure which comes through formal education that these beliefs can be eroded in the minds of the people.
There have been various campaigns against it for generations, but it is still with us. There are communities that still practice secret Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in Kenya. In such communities, most girls do not attend school at all; the few girls who attend the first few classes of school later drop out upon the ‘big cut’. Usually after the FGM the girls get married and that marks the end of education for them. It is encouraging that the few educated girls in those communities have embarked on massive campaigns against the practice and also encourage the girls to attend school. It is also our duty as women to join these women and add our voice to these campaigns so that our sisters do not miss out on the sweet fruits of education.
Alongside FGMs, Kenyan girls miss out on the vital formal education because of teenage pregnancies. Very few parents are willing to take their daughter back to school after she has had a baby. More often than not, teenage pregnancies are a result of poor or absolute absence of parent-child communication on sexual relationships. Most teenagers get pregnant because they are naïve on sexual intercourse issues. It is a taboo subject to most Kenyan communities, which makes the parents shy to talk to their children about sex.
The times have changed and the world is rotating quite faster than in the era of our parents. Parents need to speak to their girls early enough about sexual relationships. Let the girls understand what it means to have sex, the dangers, the various orientations, the contraceptives, and even give them examples of people who have suffered because of such consequences. These talks should be accompanied with an encouragement to be persistent in school and working hard while at it.
Although there are efforts by the Kenyan government and other stakeholders to build schools as close as possible, some schools are quite far from the communities that they serve. The distance on its own is very discouraging to children, especially the young girls. Besides the distance, there is the danger of being attacked by animals, or even being abused sexually by male adults. It also gets worse when it is a muddy trek, especially during the rainy season. This forces the girls to abandon schooling. The only solution to this issue is the advocating for the government, and interested stakeholders to invest in schools in such communities.
The things we take for granted are very important to some people. The water that we pour carelessly in our homes means a whole lot of importance to people of various communities in semi-arid Kenya. Water is among the reasons that a girl or two in these communities miss out on school. When the nearby rivers dry out, the women and girls have to go for long distances to look for water. Sometimes it takes a whole day before they get to the long queue of the water source which might not be enough for family consumption in a day. This means that the girls will miss out on school for several days until the water is enough. It discourages the girls to keep going to school because the frequent absenteeism means that they lag behind in the school syllabus making them very weak students who eventually give up on education. Water sources should be made accessible to all Kenyan communities so that the girls get enough rest and are energetic enough to attend school.
There is the issue of cooking energy that is a problem to girls in rural communities in Kenya. Most of these communities rely on firewood for cooking and it is a cultural duty for small girls to collect this firewood. However, with the current government policies that hinder the cutting down of trees it has become almost impossible for people to get dry wood for cooking. The girls are therefore forced to go for long distances to look for firewood and sometimes they get harassed by government officials who demand for a permit to cut or collect wood in reserve forests. These girls get very exhausted from the long distances, and in most cases they fall sick due to the harsh conditions through which they get the firewood. Sickness means absence from school for several days. Affordable alternative sources of cooking energy should be introduced to such communities to avoid the over-relying on the restricted firewood for cooking.
Economic constraints cannot be ignored in the efforts to get the girls to school. When poverty hits a community, sleeping on an empty stomach becomes a norm. The unknown fate of the next day keeps everyone on their toes to toil and moil for whatever small that can sustain them for as long as possible. The girls in these communities never go to school because of the inability of their parents to afford the basic needs, or drop out of school to join the adult in the ‘hunt’ for food. The people in these communities should be encouraged to engage in income generating activities that can enable them generate some money to buy food and other basic needs. They need to ensure that all the children are able to attend school, especially the girls.
Even with great power and resources, a human being is a mere shell without confidence. Let the girls be given the confidence to be who they ought to be. Let us assure them that there is so much potential in all of them. We should discourage them from comparing their talents with those of their mates because every one of us is unique and has special talents. You and I can slowly nurture the hidden talents in them by being positive in those small little things that they do.
We are advantaged in many ways. We are lucky to be able to read and write because our parents or guardians foresaw the value in the education of a girl child. We are lucky because we have been exposed to cultural diversity in the process of our schooling, and as a result we are able to realize oppression when it comes. There are many ways that make as very fortunate people and we should not keep it all to ourselves. Education is basic, and all the girls need it to be able to be recognized in the male-dominated world.
Let us try in our small ways to drag our disadvantaged sisters along. With our computers, let us show them videos of fellow girls from disadvantaged communities, but are happy to be in school. With our phones, let them hear songs of hopeful girls. Through our newspapers and magazines, let them find hope in women winning elections. In the salons, share your success stories with women who have given up hope of educating their daughters. While buying your favorite vegetable at the market, give that lady an extra coin and remind her that it is for her daughter’s education. After all, a candle loses nothing by lighting another candle.