Why plugging gender gaps require radical policy shift

Education Cabinet Secretary Dr Fred Matiangi is received by Friends School Keveye girls students when he visited their institution to asses the situation following reports of canning of students . BY BENJAMIN SAKWA

The prevailing dimension of gender inequalities in education in Africa is not a battle of sexes, but a key development challenge that rides on low productivity, limited job creation, huge infrastructure gaps, environmental damage and weak institutional systems, according to Abdalla Hamdok, the Executive Secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Africa.

Launching ‘Economic Report for Africa 2017,’ in Dakar, Senegal, on March 26, Hamdok stressed that in order to make social and economic progress, African countries would have to provide quality education to people, irrespective of gender or economic status.

 “Quality education lies at the heart of Africa’s capacity to harness the emerging youth bulge and rapid urbanisation for industrialisation and economic transformation,” said Hamdok.

But for now, women are disadvantaged, as on average, they receive only 4.3 years of schooling, against men who get 5.7, creating a continental-wide gender gap of 1.4 years.

However, the situation is worse in Sub-Saharan Africa where in some countries, girls are only getting less than 2.5 years of schooling. For instance in Niger, girls on average get less than a year of schooling, which tallies with the fact that more than 50 per cent of the girls aged between 15 and 19, as in Mali and DR Congo are married,” says the report.


Nevertheless, although Kenya has one of the highest numbers of schooling years in Sub-Saharan Africa among persons aged 25 years and above at the mean rate of 8.6 years for men and 6.8 years for women, with a million children out of school, the country has one the highest number of children without chance of schooling in the region after Nigeria (8.7m), Sudan (2.7m), Tanzania (1.7m) and Niger (1.2 m).

According to the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), the number of girls out of school in Kenya, is relatively higher than that of boys, as more girls drop out as they transition through grades.

The crux of the matter is that despite the progress made through free primary education, challenges of access still persist in marginalised areas and urban slums, where children from poor households and girls in particular, have far less chance of making it to school.
In this regard, whereas almost all children from rich households had been to school in Nairobi, 55 per cent of poor girls in North-East had never been to school, as compared to 43 per cent of boys in the region. “But this is an improvement since 2003 when 71 percent of poor girls in that region, had never been to school, as compared to 56 per cent of poor boys,” says UNESCO.

As indicated by UNECA, education barriers in Kenya or anywhere else in Sub-Saharan Africa continues to be embedded in extreme poverty and familial opportunity costs. “So far, school enrolment and even educational attainment of boys and girls from rich households are similar, while gender inequalities intensify among girls from poor households,” says UNECA’s report.

Subsequently, the emerging scenario is that despite a strong political commitment to education, access is still lopsided, as many young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are not even having lower secondary education. The issue is that although abolition of secondary school fees reduced the costs for households, indirect costs of schooling are still a major problem as they are higher than monthly income of parents in rural areas and urban slums.

According to studies done in several slums in Nairobi by Dr Moses Ngware, a senior research scientist and head of education programme at the African Population and Health Research Centre, only 12 per cent of young women in those informal settlements have attended secondary school compared to 19 per cent of young men there. In his analysis, Ngware points out that lack of secondary education among youth in urban slums is likely to have long-term huge skills deficits among young people, and more so women.

Already, there are indicators that lack of secondary education among young people living in urban slums in Nairobi is translating into lack of skills as 80 per cent of women aged 15-24 in those areas have no income generating activities, as compared to 50 per cent of the men. “So far, only around one in five of young women aged 19-20 report having training in a trade or skill, and only half of those can use their training to earn an income,” says UNESCO.

To fix the problem, UNESCO is calling on the government to establish radical social policy interventions that should include increasing the number of public primary secondary schools in slum settlement and in pastoralist communities, as well as experiment on targeted conditional cash transfers in education.

Ideally, cash transfers allow people who are very poor to buy food and other necessities, thus impacting on their choice to support education of their children.

In view of gender inequalities in access to education in Kenya, Joyce Kinyanjui, an educational researcher and a doctoral candidate at the University of Zululand in South Africa, says social and cultural factors play a major role in determining parental choice to send a boy or a girl to school, especially among the pastoralist communities.

“Parents prefer to send sons to school , as they believe will earn more money and spend most of it on the family than girls says Kinyanjui in a study ‘ Mentoring for Kenya’s Marginalised Girls: Benefits, Challenges, and Policies.’


Kinyanjui states that when resources are limited and parents have to send children to school, they usually opt to send boys to school at the expense of girls because after marriage, a girl’s earnings will be likely to enrich another man and his family.

Consequently, a large number of poor parents in pastoralist traditional communities are likely to send their girls for female genital mutilation, because as Kinyanjui points, out, “once they have been circumcised, they are considered eligible for marriage.”

According to Dr Kevin Watkins, the chief executive of the British charity Save the Children and an expert on basic education in Sub-Saharan Africa, other barriers that reduce girls participation in education in Kenya include teenage pregnancies and early marriages, household chores, gender-based violence, long distance to schools and environmental factors, often caused by worsened by climate change.

Unfortunately, although schools have opportunities to challenge some of the negative cultural norms, especially those that deter girls’ access to education, they do not exist in isolation from their communities and robust government intervention is required in order to have positive results.


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