I knew, before arriving in Kenya, that there were differences in education between boys and girls. Most girls don’t complete school. Of the few that do, practically none pursue higher education. Of the 51,000 students enrolled in the Suba district last year, 134 enrolled in university this year. Assuming an equal distribution of students among the grades (which is not at all the case because of dropouts), this would be about 3%. Of these, six were girls.
So, roughly speaking, one out of every 1,000 girls in this area goes to university. In reality, most don’t finish high school. At the early grades, the distribution between males and females is about even. As they get older, though, the number of boys in school far outpaces the number of girls.
When the girls are in school, their performance is much worse than the boys. At the first school we visited, the top performing girl had a 51% (C+). The top boy had a 91% (A). While you can’t compare the percents between the two cultures (North America doesn’t really use the lower half of the percent scale), the difference between the performance among girls and boys is staggering.
The reasons for this are many. This is a fishing community. The fishing is done by men, and they do most of the fishing at night. The women go to the docks around 4:00 AM to buy fish. They take these to market, where they have to sell all of the fish before going home.
Meanwhile, the girls are left to run the household. They have to gather water, make breakfast, wash dishes, and take care of the younger children. Consequently, they are frequently late getting to school, and there’s no one at home to make sure they go at all. Those who do go also have to stay home whenever a younger child in the family is sick, or when they are needed at home. They quickly fall behind their classmates. In Kenya, students are not socially promoted — it’s possible to see students who are 13 or 14 years old in grade three. More often, it’s the girls who fall into these situations. They don’t have much in common with their academic class, and tend to drop out.
Another reason girls drop out of school is an economic one. They’re not having their basic needs met. They’re not getting proper meals, they don’t have access to basic hygene products, and they don’t have basic clothing and reasonable shoes. They quickly find that there are other ways for a young woman to get money, and they involve a different skill set from the ones taught in school. We’ve heard about this problem from at least three different sources while we’ve been here. Once the girl gets pregnant, dropping out of school is inevitable.
These aren’t isolated problems in Kenya. In nearly every school we’ve seen, dropout rates are high for both boys and girls. At least 80% of the students who start grade one don’t make it though grade eight. But for girls, the numbers are much worse. In the lower grades, the ratio of boys to girls is about even. By tenth grade, two-thirds of the students are boys.
As you would expect, there aren’t any easy solutions. The biggest problem is probably the cultural role that women take. They are responsible for the maintenance of the household. They are subservient to men, and are totally dependent on them economically. In families, most of the resources are used to raise and educate the male children. Until these things change, it will be difficult to truly reach gender parity in the schools. At the same time, though, until the schools can reach and empower the girls, the society won’t change.
In Three cups of Tea, Greg Mortenson talks about how valuable it can be to focus on the education of girls. Women are the caretakers of a culture. The traditions and roles are passed down by the mothers in the family. When boys are well educated, they frequently go off to seek their fortunes elsewhere. But girls tend to stay home. If we can reach them, we can affect the culture of the whole community.
Until then, some are suggesting boarding schools. By removing the girls from the home environment, they can more easily focus on their studies instead of being sidetracked by the expectations of managing the household. In many cases, though, parents can’t afford to send their daughters to boarding schools, so this approach has limited effectiveness.
I’ve been trying to think about how the gender roles changed in North America. It’s been ninety years since women got the right to vote in America. It took another 20 years or more before women were common in the workplace, and that was because many of the able-bodied men were fighting in the war. Twenty-five years later, we were still struggling with the role of women in our society. Twenty years after that, it was acceptable for women to have professional careers, but many kept bumping their heads against the glass ceiling in a world still dominated by men. While there’s evidence that this is changing, many would argue that it isn’t changing fast enough.
In the mean time, we’re trying to talk to as many of the girls and their teachers as we can. We’re encouraging them to stay in school, to set goals for themselves, and work hard to realize their dreams. It’s certainly inadequate, just a drop in the ocean. But it’s a start.