By Dipti Kumar
TURKANA, Kenya – It wasn’t Stella’s contemporary floral summer dress that made her stand out from the other girls in her village – it was the backpack on her shoulders.
She had stuffed the dusty-grey bag with clothes and books. She also carried a black, polythene bag filled with more books on mathematics and social sciences. Stella was returning to her boarding school in the town of Kalokol, a two-day trip from her village in this remote corner of Northern Kenya.
“I love to learn,” said the soft-spoken teen, who hopes to become a health-care worker after completing her education. “I want to be a nurse because I want to help the community.”
Here in the Kenyan bush, where 85 percent of the population is illiterate, many consider education a reliable path out of poverty. Still, despite the potential benefits of education, the road to graduation is fraught with challenges, especially for young girls.
According to Patricia Ekadeli, an official with the Ministry of Education in Turkana, the dropout rate for girls from secondary school is 65 percent – and that’s of the lucky few who make it that far. A report from the U.S.Agency for International Development in 2012 estimated that only 2,000 female students out of a rural population of 855,000 were enrolled in secondary school.
“There are cultural reasons,” said Ekadeli. “The community would rather have boys attend school. If a girl goes to school, she loses all that’s valued in Turkana culture.”
The traditional role of the Turkana woman has been that of homemaker and water bearer. Girls born into this nomadic, pastoral tribe can be married off at the young age of thirteen, their worth measured by dowries of goats and camels. Moreover, families are often unable to pay for the secondary education of all of their children, leading them to choose boys over girls.
Meanwhile, schools in rural Kenya have been slow to adapt facilities to accommodate girls, especially in providing sanitary care during menstruation. The sanitary question in particular became so great an issue as to catch the attention of international aid organizations, leading to government intervention.
“There’s the issue of menstruation management,” said Ekadeli, who handles women’s issues for the education ministry. “Girls get confined in their home with no sanitary towels. They go home and don’t attend school.”
But providing sanitary towels is not the full solution to preventing dropouts. According to Ekadeli female students have responded to counseling by their educators. Counseling establishes a two-way communication between teacher and student. It encourages them to open up about personal problems – an uncommon practice in Turkana, said Ekadeli – which is an important part of keeping them out of trouble and engaged in academics.
In Kerio, a little over an hour’s drive from Stella’s village, the primary school is a day and boarding facility with more than 700 children—both boys and girls – but only 7 students. The ratio has contributed to the large dropout pool: the 2 female teachers at Kerio Primary are responsible for more than 450 girls.
Stella has been able to stay in school despite the odds, and she credits counseling with motivating her to continue and stay focused. Adjusting the straps of her bag, Stella recited word for word the advice her teachers gave her.
“‘Try to go straight home from school,’” said Stella. “‘When you go to town, you get into many problems.’”