For much of her childhood, Lucy Koriang * spent her days herding the family’s herd of goats, walking several kilometers a day, looking for the best places to graze.
Being a goat herder was not a job she enjoyed or chose, especially in the unbearable temperatures of Isiolo County in northern Kenya where she lives. His father, like most parents in Ngaremara village, saw little point in taking his children to school. Moving from the shelter of one thorny acacia to another, the 13-year-old girl was lost in thought, dreaming of a different life.
“Then one day they came and took me out of the field. It was a kidnapping, ”Lucy said. Four men, all in their twenties, grabbed her and took her away to become the wife of one of them. “The goats were there,” he says, pointing to a place in the distance. “They never asked me anything. I think I got pregnant that same day. “
In Ngaremara, similar stories of early marriages, unwanted motherhood and perpetual poverty are common. Stories of disillusioned and fearful girls who were denied the right to education and instead married men they never loved or even knew, men often two or three times their age.
These girls become part of the statistics, among the 260 million boys and girls who, according to the British Prime Minister Boris johnson “They were being denied the education that should be their birthright” even before the Covid pandemic.
This week Johnson and Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta host the World education summit, with the ambitious goal of facilitating a forum for leaders to pledge money that can be used to provide education in underserved communities like Ngaremara. They hope to raise $ 5bn (£ 3.6bn) at a time when the UK is cutting its foreign aid budget and other nations face urgent needs on all sides.
Samuel Kiragu oversees standards at the Isiolo County Department of Education. He says there are probably 7,000 children in the county who either dropped out of school or never started. Most are girls.
“It’s about poverty and outdated cultural practices,” he says. “There are those who want to be in class but do not have access to education. In any case, we want to help the community understand that education is a basic right for children ”.
Government resources are scarce and Isiolo’s girls are among the 5,000 out-of-school girls from marginalized communities and low-income households that benefit from the Education for life initiative, which is supported by the United Kingdom.
It is a relatively small five-year project that runs through 2023 and is aimed at girls between the ages of 10 and 19. About 70% never enrolled in school and 30% have had some formal education but dropped out.
In Isiolo, 1,034 girls, many of them mothers, are enrolled in 26 “recovery” centers, where they spend 6 to 9 months learning basic literacy skills. Similar programs in Garissa, Kilifi, Migori and Kisumu counties are working with another 4,000 girls.
The literacy and life skills provided at these centers are intended to facilitate the return of those under the age of 14 to formal primary schools, while those aged 15 and over will be integrated into informal education or employment.
But breaking down deeply ingrained cultural barriers is not an easy task for local organizations.
“We have men here asking, ‘Why are you targeting girls who are our source of wealth? Why invest in girls who will eventually marry and leave home? Some also hide children with disabilities, ”says Patricia Makau, Education for Life coordinator at Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) Kenya, one of the implementing partners.
“This is solved by organizing community forums to gain acceptance from the patriarchs. We have to be as kind as possible so as not to upset the fragile social balance. Although most underage girls are married, empowering them means they can become assets to their families. “
At one such center in Atan village, Janet Ekura, the education facilitator, was writing down the day’s lesson on a blackboard; the term “teacher” is avoided because of its hierarchical tone. Since January 2021, Ekura has been caring for about 30 girls between the ages of 14 and 19.
During a break in lessons, young mothers head to a nearby farm to check on their children, who are left in the care of a group of elderly women.
Ekura says the girls were scared and shy when they opened the centers. “There are 19-year-olds who couldn’t even write their names, make a phone call using a cell phone, as they couldn’t distinguish one contact from another, or enter the phone’s security functions. Self-esteem was at an all-time low. Look at them now, they are handling basic arithmetic and language lessons. Now they can talk. Education is about trust. “
Sitting in another corner is Agnes Epong, an administrator. She also had to overcome community stereotypes about women to become one of the mentors. After the lesson, Epong sits down with a group of about 10 girls and advises them on life skills.
“You got married early. Some of you are mothers and you can’t change [that]. Losing hope will get you nowhere. But education will, ”he says. The girls listen carefully to every word. Epong has grown used to threats from some parents and other locals who felt their “old age insurance” was slipping away. “We continue to prefer dialogue by force,” he says.
The persuasion has won local hearts, including that of John Eshua, 70, a village elder whose son is married to one of the girls at the center. In Ngaremara, Eshua uses his slang name a lot of words or “the talker” in Swahili. He’s not afraid to defend girls. “We should stop substituting a cow for a girl. Why should 10-year-old girls have babies? I told my son to let the girl get a little education before other social commitments. The girls are the light of the community ”.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism