Girls’ Education and Sustainable Development in Kenya

By Jean Cheung

Table of Contents

 1. Introduction

2. Background

3. Barriers to Education

4. Support from Organizations

5. Challenges

6. Conclusion

7. References

8. Key Terms and Definitions

9. About the Author

1. Introduction

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development adopted by the United Nations and its member states in 2015 calls for universal access to quality education (Goal 4) and gender equality (Goal 5). A recent initiative developed by UNESCO called Left Behind - Girls’ Education in Africa demonstrates the severity of the issue of access to quality education for girls and women in sub-Saharan Africa. The interactive data website established by UNESCO points out that “across the region, 28 million young and adolescent girls are out of school, and many will never set foot in a classroom” (UNESCO, 2015). This entry explores the case of postcolonial Kenya to identify two main barriers that girls face in the field of education: gender stereotyping and economic scarcity. The entry then discusses the innovative role some organizations and initiatives play in reforming gender relations in the society, and concludes with a discussion of the implications such changes have on Kenyan education and on future directions to achieve gender equality and sustainable development.

2. Background

The New York Times article “Bringing Education to African Girls” published in 2014 discusses the success of Camfed Organization in helping girls across Africa to have a chance to receive education. This success was a result of some major changes in the funding provided to students and the training of teachers (Schuetze, 2014). Such solutions are essential to alleviate poverty and provide access to education to women and girls in societies where, in the situation of scarcity, provision of education to men and boys is prioritized. Kenya is one such country where quality education for women and girls is not easily accessible. UNESCO’s Education for All Global Monitoring Report (2012a) on Kenya states that 9% of women are illiterate and 30% are semi-illiterate after staying in school for six years; the situation had worsened as in 2003 24% of women were semi- or illiterate. The trajectory of gender equality in basic education appears to have formed a downward spiral.

Butler’s seminal work on gender reveals the importance of understanding power relations here. In her book Undoing Gender (2004), she argues, ‘Gender is not exactly what one ‘is’ nor is it precisely what one “has”’ (p. 42). The notion of a gendered person—as a “girl” in this entry—can be seen to harbor at once both transformation and marginalization. The construction of a gendered identity is dependent on one’s relationships with others.

3. Barriers to Education

Barriers to girls’ education in Kenya include gender norms and issues surrounding poverty. Kenya passed the National Gender and Equality Commission Act in 2011. This Act supports gender equality and non-discrimination of diverse sectors across the country. Yet, what has the progression of gender equity been like nationally? Standing at 52%, more than half of all age-appropriate Kenyan girls are not attending secondary school (UNESCO, 2012b). Stuart Hall (2000)’s theory is that ‘identities are constructed through, not outside, difference’ (p. 17). Gender is, in this sense, a product of socialization. In Africa, traditional beliefs about gender roles reign. The kind of inequality that girls experience stems from what the global movement Because I am a Girl, a part of Plan International (2015), calls ‘entrenched assumptions about girls’ roles as carers, mothers, [and] brides’ (p. 25). According to their findings, in a country like Kenya, parents have expressed the idea that a man would not prefer to marry a woman if she was educated and he was not. This ingrained kind of value would then be passed onto the girls’ beliefs and affect their willingness to go to school, let alone stay in one (p. 26). A study on girls’ education in Siaya, a rural county in Kenya, for example, observes that morning domestic chores can make girls distressed and unable to focus in class, which results in them choosing not to go to school (Oruko et al., 2015). In addition, the Global Partnership for Girls’ and Women’s Education reports that patriarchy still dominates in Kenya, where financially deprived families would rather send their sons to school (UNESCO, 2012b). Girls of Kenya are in this way pushed to ‘suppress expressions of their own intelligence’ (Macharia, 2011, p. 320). Thus, traditional gender roles are a part of African cultural ideology and due to its prevalence, girls might be considered as social outcasts for going to school.

Poverty is another important factor. At one end, free primary education has been implemented in Kenya since 2003. At another end, a recent case study report conducted by the Overseas Development Institute details the improvements made to the landscape of Kenyan education. Student enrollment in higher education, for instance, has markedly increased since 2006 (Nicolai, Prizzon, & Hine, 2014, p. 9). Nevertheless, due to the country’s continuous population growth, half of all Kenyan people still ‘live in absolute poverty’ alongside an HDI (Human Development Index) of 145 (out of 187 countries) (p. 9). When mapped against the larger picture of Kenya’s economic status, the complexity of gendered identities enlarges. Girls are not attaining permanent access to school. For families that cannot afford basic household necessities or school supplies, some young girls engage in transactional sex. This has influenced the academic competence of the girls (Plan International, 2015, p. 28) and the school dropout rate can become more apparent due to pregnancy (p. 29). While the Gender and Education Policy (2003) of Kenya allows pregnant girls to go back to school, there are still a number of girls who enter child marriage. In a medical journal article written about poverty in Africa, the author argues that the inherent problem with child marriage is that the financial identity of these girls is constructed through their husbands (Nour, 2006, p. 1645). It becomes a self-perpetuating cycle; girls leave school sand do not have a chance to educate their own children. Bearing the challenges faced by Kenya in mind, Syomwene and Kindiki (2015) suggest a working model for Kenyan girls to gain a better perspective of their worth. In a country like Kenya that rests on agriculture, they write that education would expand girls’ ‘knowledge and skills on the best farming methods’ and see this as a ‘big step to eradication of poverty’ (p. 41). Their environmental-economic model is important insofar as it promotes sustainable local awareness of the extreme situation that uneducated girls bear. 

4. Support from Organizations

While not all girls are barred from going to school, there could be several negative issues that devalue their learning experience. Three international organizations have recently addressed this. A well-known organization has, for instance, made education safer for schoolgirls in Kenya. ActionAid’s Stop Violence against Girls in School (SVAGS) project helps to chart and diminish violence experienced by girls in several African countries, including Kenya. Almost 90% of girls in Kenya reported having experienced physical violence (ActionAid, 2013a, p. 25). ActionAid works with local groups in Kenya, like Sauti Ya Wanawake, the Women’s Voices team that provides girls with resources on educational rights (ActionAid, 2013b, p. 36). As stated in their five-year project outcome, ‘in the intervention areas, violence against girls by family members, teachers and peers [has since been] reduced by 50% from baseline statistics’ (ActionAid, 2013a, p. 11).

Second, for girls living in the rural parts of Kenya, transportation is a problem that could discourage them from going to school. One organization that has promoted changes in the Kakamega County of Kenya is World Bicycle Relief. They have given girls 70% of the available bicycles as they are aware that distance can restrain girls from going to school and as a result, the county’s school officials report that this change has bolstered the girls’ own sense of confidence (World Bicycle Relief, 2016). Other Kenyan girls who come from nomadic families benefit from mobile schools which have been set up to help educate, and one non-profit organization that has made this innovation possible is Adeso, which is based in Nairobi. Mobile schools work according to a flexible schedule where class times, for example, cohere with the girls’ daily routines (McNair, 2015). Together, these projects are sustainable to Kenyan society, as they re-position marginalized girls by granting them fair educational opportunities and teaching them two important political values: that any form of abuse is not acceptable and that learning can be a comfortable endeavor.

Where effort has been made to address the kind of gender imbalance dispersed around the country, organizations have also paid attention to the enhancement of girls’ learning in areas usually regarded as male-dominated. UNESCO Nairobi established the Scientific Camps of Excellence in 2014 (UNESCO, 2016). They noticed that few girls are enrolled in science-related fields, so their project aims to encourage more girls to study engineering and math. The program hires female professionals in engineering to be the girls’ mentors, and more than fifty teachers themselves have been trained to teach STEM in a gender-sensitive way.

Two other organizations deserve mention here: NairoBits and Africa Women in Science and Technology (AWiST). NairoBits offers classes in ICT and entrepreneurship, which are popular among girls (NairoBits, 2016). A news article reports that because technology is normally associated with males, the girls who participate in NairoBits’ classes are the ones who did not receive adequate learning from school. As such, NairoBits gives girls ‘a chance to learn, share, and interact in a supportive environment’ (Raab, 2015). Launched in 2013, AWiST has a similar passion. It goes to different schools in Kenya in the hope of sustaining ‘awareness of and interest in STEM careers’ among girls, spurring female participation in future STEM professions (Center for Education Innovations, 2015). By sealing the gender divide, these projects appear to be in line with the country’s own national plan, Kenya Vision 2030, which is a government initiative that aspires to make the nation more robust in the world. Gender mainstreaming is one of its goals (Kenya Vision 2030, 2016). The Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development has also made schooling possible for more girls by employing digital methods (Situma, 2015).

5. Challenges

Raising global awareness of the situation faced by uneducated girls and schoolgirls can be a challenge given that organizations mostly depend on sponsorships and voluntary work. Sources of funding might fluctuate and national policies about foreign aid might change. The political aspect of just what constitutes ‘aid’ could therefore be questioned by the public. In July 2016, Madonna, an internationally known singer, visited Kenya to observe educational opportunities for girls, and she made a series of posts about the visit on her Instagram account (Goldberg, 2016). This has garnered worldwide attention, but from an ethnocentric perspective, it is merely an emblem of celebrity culture rather than a steadfast solution to an existing problem. The challenge then lies in thinking about how gender equity can genuinely be achieved in a country like Kenya. Meanwhile, the BABIES (Bathrooms Accessible in Every Situation) Act was recently implemented in the United States in October 2016. Both male and female washrooms in public buildings are now required to have necessary diaper changing equipment (Middlebrook, 2016). This example illuminates the need for a reversal of cultural ideology so that gender relations can truly be more equal in a local context. For Kenya, it would be rewarding for boys and fathers to be cognizant of the fact that it is not an obligation for girls or women to live according to a so called maternal instinct.

6. Conclusion

With regard to the barriers girls face in education, the magnitude of inequality is large in scale. Not only do unequal gender norms prevail in Kenya, but the financial situation of some families prevents some girls from attaining education. Projects constructed by international organizations such as UNESCO, Plan International, and ActionAid have assisted girls’ education and raised global awareness on the weight of the situation. These projects work because they show that it is in fact possible to make a change, however gradual it may be. Yet the perceived improvements made to a supposedly genderless educational environment as reported by the media only form part of the first step to making real change. Sustainable political change starts in the minds of local citizens. If Kenyan education could have a more androgynous, less gender binary face, transformation would arise.

7. References

ActionAid, Stop Violence Against Girls in School. (2013a). A Cross-Country Analysis of Change in Ghana, Kenya and Mozambique. Retrieved from

ActionAid, Stop Violence Against Girls in School. (2013b). Success Stories. Retrieved from

Butler, J. (2004). Undoing Gender. New York, NY: Routledge. 

Center for Education Innovations, Africa Women in Science and Technology (AWiST). (2015). Africa Women in Science and Technology (AWiST). Retrieved from

Goldberg, E. (2016, July 6). Madonna Promotes Girls’ Education, Maternal Health in Kenya. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from

Hall, S. (2000). Who Needs ‘Identity’? In P. du Gay, J. Evans, & P. Redman (Eds.), Identity: A Reader (pp. 15-30). Los Angeles: SAGE.

Kenya Vision 2030. (2016). Gender Mainstreaming. Retrieved from

Macharia, F. (2011). The Education of Urban Dwellers: The Kenyan Experience. In E. L. Birch & S. M. Wachter (Eds.), Global urbanization (pp. 310-322). Retrieved from

McNair, D. (2015, September 11). Mobile Schools are Catching up to On-the-go Girls in Kenya. TakePart. Retrieved from

Middlebrook, H. (2016, October 12). Dad-in-chief Signs Law Bringing Diaper-changing Stations to More Men's Rooms. CNN. Retrieved from

NairoBits. (2016). Our Orograms. Retrieved from

Nicolai, S., Prizzon, A., & Hine, S. (2014). Beyond Basic: The Growth of Post-Primary Education in Kenya.  Retrieved from Overseas Development Institute website:

Nour, N. M. (2006). Health Consequences of Child Marriage in Africa. Emerging Infectious Diseases, 12(11), 1644-1649. doi:10.3201/eid1211.060510

Oruko, K., Nyothach, E., Zielinski-Gutierrez, E., Mason, L., Alexander, K., Vulule, J., . . . Phillips-Howard, P.  (2015). ‘He is the One who is Providing You with Everything so Whatever He Says is What You Do’: A Qualitative Study on Factors Affecting Secondary Schoolgirls’ Dropout in Rural Western Kenya. PLoS ONE, 10(12). Doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0144321

Plan International. (2015). Because I am a Girl: Africa Report 2012 - Progress and Obstacles to Girls' Education in Africa. Retrieved from

Raab, S. (2015, October 12). Nonprofits Championing Tech for Girls in Kenya. Nonprofit Quarterly. Retrieved from

Schuetze, C. F. (2014, November 23). Bringing Education to African Girls. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Situma, D. B. (2015). Open and Distance Learning and Information and Communication Technologies - Implications for Formal and Non-formal Education: A Kenyan case. Journal of Learning for Development, 2(1). Retrieved from

Syomwene, A., & Kindiki, J. N. (2015). Women Education and Economic Development in Kenya: Implications for Curriculum Development and Implementation Processes. Journal of Education and Practice, 6(15), 38-43. Retrieved from

UNESCO. (2016). UNESCO Inspires Girls in Kenya to Embrace Science and Engineering through Scientific Camps of Excellence. Retrieved from

UNESCO, Global Education Monitoring Report Team. (2012a). Education for All Global Monitoring Report: Fact sheet - education in Kenya. Retrieved from

UNESCO, Global Partnership for Girls’ and Women’s Education. (2012b). One year on. Retrieved from

UNESCO, Institute for Statistics. (2015). Left Behind - Girls’ Education in Africa. Retrieved from

World Bicycle Relief. (2016). The Community Impact of 100 Bicycles. Retrieved from

 8. Key Terms and Definitions

Gender: A social construct of masculinity and femininity, as opposed to one’s biological sex.

Ideology: Beliefs of a culture that have been normalized.

Marginalization: The process of positioning certain groups of individuals at the periphery of society.

STEM Education: The Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics curriculum.

About the Author

Jean Cheung

MEd Student, The University of Hong Kong