Sustainable Menstruation for Adolescent Schoolgirls in Rural Kenya

By Ragini Mae Gomonit Chengalath

Table of Contents:

1.    Introduction

2.    Problems Faced by Adolescent Schoolgirls in Rural Kenya 

3.    The Sustainability of Menstrual Cups

4.    Menstrual Health Education and Menstrual Cups: Considerations and Barriers

5.    Recommendations

6.    References

7.    Key Terms and Definitions 

8.    About the Author

1.    Introduction

Menstruation, the periodic discharge of blood and tissue from the uterus, is an important and often overlooked occurrence. In low-income settings, good menstrual hygiene can be a challenge that needs to be overcome as it createsproblems for school-going girls. Menstrual health education (MHE) covers menstrual health, hygiene,and reproductive health, and can be used to help prepare womenfor the onset of menstruation and the challenges it brings. 

In rural Kenya, adolescent schoolgirls face underlying problems when dealing with menstruation due to lack of quality MHE and lack of access to reusable feminine hygiene products. These in turn lead to a wide array of issues such as school absenteeism, mental and physical health problems, and negative environmental impact. MHE is therefore crucial in educating girls towards a more sustainable future. Furthermore, lack of MHE and hygiene services ultimately lead to gender inequality. 

Menstrual health is both explicitly and implicitly relevant to 5 out of the 17 United Nations 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (Keith, 2016). These include several targets such as 6.2 (adequate sanitation and hygiene, particularly for women and girls), 5.6 (universal access to reproductive health and rights), 4.5 (elimination of gender disparities in education), and 4.7 (acquisition of knowledge and skills to promote sustainable development through education for sustainable development) (UN, 2015). Countries should promote a sustainable approach to menstruation through culturally-sensitive MHE. Education should focus on reusable feminine hygiene products, empower girls and change attitudes towards menstruation within communities. 

This entry bringsto light some of the problems menstruating adolescent schoolgirls in rural Kenya often face and proposes a possible solution that includesthe use of menstrual cups and MHE. It also identifies barriers that exist which may influence the willingness to usemenstrual cups by schoolgirls and emphasises the importance of quality MHE to overcome these barriers. Although this entryfocuses on problems faced by schoolgirls in rural Kenya, itbeing a global issueisrelevant across the world. 

2.    Problems Faced by Adolescent Schoolgirls in Rural Kenya

In Kenya menstruationis viewed as ‘dirty’ (McMahon et al., 2011, p. 4) and sanitary pads are often referred to as ‘mud guards’ (p. 7). When girls have their period, they either go home during the school day or miss school altogether to avoid the risk of leakage that may stain their uniforms (Jewitt and Ryley, 2014), or having to clean themselves at school. Ultimately, lack of education and support as well as access to good sanitary products leaves girls at a disadvantage when compared to their male counterparts.

Lack of access to feminine hygiene products, which primarily is the result oftheir unaffordability is one concern. In low-income families, sanitary towels are viewed as a luxury item (Jewitt andRyley, 2014), forcing girls to use alternatives such as dry grass, leaves, and cotton (Keith, 2016). This increases risk of infections that may ultimately also lead to severe health issues if left untreated, including greater susceptibility to sexually transmitted infections (Keith, 2016). Reusable feminine hygiene products such as cloth sanitary pads and menstrual cups are a solution to the problem of cost. Nevertheless, there are still health risks associated with using reusable products without proper education. For example, reusable pads must be washed and dried after every use, however girls are often shy and unwilling to hang pads outside to dry in the open. Instead, they are left to dry improperly ‘hidden inside’ or ‘under the bed’ (Hennegan et. al, 2016, p. 4), increasing the risk of infection. These are issues that can be avoided through education, and it is therefore important to inform girls about the resources that are available and how to use them safely.

MHE is a necessary subject to teach to women and men as it includes the material aboutmenstruation, menstrual hygiene,and issues relating to menstruation,such as puberty, that cancreate apositive menstruation experience for girls. MHE must take placeinside and outside of school. According to Crichton et al. (2012), mothers, school teachers, and other relatives are the best sources of information about menstruation for girls. However, often these schoolgirls do not talk about menstruation at home or at school (McMahon et al., 2011). Lack of knowledge about menstruation leavesthem with feelings of fear, powerlessness, and shame. 

3.    The sustainability of menstrual cups

The menstrual cup is a bell-shaped, reusable feminine hygiene product made out of silicone. The cup is inserted into vagina where it collects menstrual fluid and is emptied and cleaned when necessary before reuse. Menstrual cups have economic, environmental,and health benefits that encourage more sustainable menstruation for girls and can be considered a possible solution to some of the problems they face. 

As menstrual cups are reusable, they produce significantly less waste and are more environmentally friendly than disposable products such as sanitary pads and tampons. Since disposable products must be changed several times a day, millions are disposed of daily, along with their plastic packaging. Furthermore, sanitary pads and tampons contain chemicals for fluid absorption and odour elimination, which can contaminate the environment after disposal. The high demand and production of non-renewable menstrual products has had a lasting, negative impact on the environment. However, depending on brand and upkeep, one menstrual cup can be used for approximately five years (Beksinska et al., 2015) making them far more environmentally friendly. 

The cost of menstrual hygiene products for these schoolgirls is an issue. A packet of sanitary pads in Kenya can cost 75 Kenyan Shillings (Rubli, 2014), which is more than half the daily income of an unskilled labourer. Over one menstrual cycle, a girl may go through two packets. However, only one menstrual cup is needed to replace years’ worth of sanitary pads and tampons. 

Menstrual cups also have health benefits when compared to other feminine hygiene products. First, they do not contain the chemicals found in sanitary pads and tampons (Silverman, 2015), as they are typically made of medical-grade silicone. This makes them safer than tampons, for example, where there is a risk of developing Toxic Shock Syndrome (Juma et al., 2017). Second, the fluid collected is held away from the cervix, reducing risk of infections that can be caused by using tampons (Kapitako, 2017). Third, menstrual cups can be safely worn for longer time periods, making them ideal for schoolgirls. Fourth, wearing menstrual cups does not result in the odour that often comes with wearing sanitary pads. (Silverman, 2015). Finally, menstrual cups can help women monitor menstrual blood flow, which can be helpful in detecting medical conditions such as menorrhagia (abnormally heavy menstrual bleeding) (Stewart et al., 2009; Kapitako, 2017).

4.    Menstrual health education and menstrual cups: Considerations and barriers

One major barrier is access to clean water, as menstrual cup cleanliness is vital for safe use. To do so, girls must ensure their hands and menstrual cups are clean when removing and reinserting, and cups should also be boiled after every cycle to avoid risk of infection. Safe spaces and sanitation facilities (UNESCO, 2014) to practice good menstrual hygiene are therefore necessary, both at home and at school. Another barrier is the initial cost of menstrual cups, which is significantly more than a single sanitary pad or tampon. The Ruby Cup for example, can cost between 27-55 euros (Ruby Cup, n/d). However, despite greater initial cost, menstrual cups can last several years, making them more cost effective long-term. Several organisations, such as Ruby Cup in Kenya,are working to provide menstrual cups free of charge (along with necessary MHE) to girls in need.

Perhaps some of the more difficult barriers to overcome concern culture and cultural taboos. In many African cultures, including in rural Kenya, the onset of menstruation brings about a number of values and beliefs embedded in the culture. One example is the understanding that one must remain silent about menstruation. McMahon et al. (2011) highlight the expectation upheld by society that menstruation should not be discussed, as girls believe that male relatives and classmates are ‘not supposed to know’ (Mason et al., 2013, p. 5) about menstruation. This perpetuates the aforementioned knowledge gap and further propagates the girls’ feelings of shame.

Second,patriarchal societies lead to prejudice against women. Greed (2014) argues that even in sanitation agendas such as toilet designs‘menstruation remains marginalized’(as cited in Jewitt andRyley, 2014, p. 139), resulting in women feeling a burden in their everyday lives. The nature of patriarchal societies also makes it difficult for girls to approach male teachers for assistance, and vice versa. (Jewitt and Ryley, 2014). Moreover, there is a ‘sexual dimension’ of menstruation (McMahon et al., 2011, p. 5), which is the perceived relationship between menstruation and sexual maturity. When a girl menstruates, she is no longer seen as a child, and this is often a signal for parents to begin considering marital prospects. 

Consequently, parents often pull their daughters out of school as they now see her education as ‘unnecessary’ (Jewittand Ryley, 2014, p. 4). Girls also feel pressure from the opposite sex once they begin menstruatingas they are viewed more sexually (Mason et al., 2013).Additionally, views on ‘virginity’ and how the menstrual cup may affect perceived virginity play a role, and menstrual cups are often viewed as a violation of virginity (Silverman, 2015).

Lastly, there is an understanding that menstruation is ‘dirty’ or ‘impure’a description applied to both menstrual blood and women (Keith, 2016, p. 5). Often, menstruating women are excluded from normal daily practices, such as cooking, dining with others (Keith, 2016; McMahon et al., 2011), or even being at home (Silverman, 2015). This exclusion can lead to the aforementioned feelings of shame they experience. 

Several problems also arise from lack of proper MHE. Without education on proper use and cleaning of menstrual cups arises health and hygiene risks, and improper cleaning can lead to bacteria growth such as E. Coli (Juma et al., 2017). There is also the vital need to educate the local community and reduce cultural barriers encountered. Stigma associated with menstruation needs to be tackled by educating the wider community, both at home and at school. There is a need for ‘increased attention to educating boys and male teachers on puberty in general and menstruation in particular, in order to create less stigmatized school environments for girls’ (UNESCO, 2014, p. 29). 

5.    Recommendations

It is difficult to come up with a single solution within the given context. However, it is safe to say that education can help overcomethe stigma surrounding menstruation and shameit creates. Several recommendations can therefore be suggested. 

First, MHE must be available in schools to ensure all schoolgirls have access, either organised internally or through partner organisations such as Ruby Cup, The Malkia Initiative Foundation, or Asante Africa Foundation. However, access is only the first step and quality education must be ensured. Educational material should be age appropriate, accurate and impartial, and be taught by suitable educators. Additionally, if menstrual cups are to be implemented, education relating specifically to menstrual cups must be included in the programmes. Second, learning should happen in a safe environment, where learners feel comfortable and are willing to ask questions. Third, education should not just cover menstruation, but include related subjects such as puberty and its sexual implications, for example,to help fight stigma (UNESCO, 2014). Fourth, boys and menmust also be educated to encourage positive perceptions on menstruation and create better school environments. Lastly, MHE must not happen only in school, but in informal settings too. For example, community programmes on MHE will encourage education for family members and the wider community.

Although it is a global problem, unique cultural aspects individualise it. It is also important to consider that menstrual cups may not be a suitable and sustainable solution in this context. One could argue that perhaps the advantages of menstrual cups do not outweigh the cultural barriers that may be encountered, and other solutions may be more appropriate (such as reusable menstrual pads). With more research will come more confidence and direction, however it is a starting point to begin a discussion on an often-overlooked problem, and to investigate what work is currently being done. What needs to be reiterated is the idea that quality MHE and sustainable feminine hygiene products must work together to create a sustainable menstrual future for adolescent schoolgirls in rural Kenya. 

6.    References

Beksinska, M. E., Smit, J., Greener, R., Todd, C. S., Lee, M. T., Maphumulo, V., Hoffmann, V. (2015). Acceptability and Performance of the Menstrual Cup in South Africa: A Randomized Crossover Trial Comparing the Menstrual Cup to Tampons or Sanitary Pads. Journal of Women’s Health, 24(2), 151-158. doi: 10.1089/jwh.2014.5021

Crichton, J., Ibisomi, L., Gyimah, O. (2012). Mother-Daughter Communication About Sexual Maturation, Abstinence and Unintended Pregnancy: Experiences from an Informal Settlement in Nairobi, Kenya. Journal of Adolescence, 35(1), 21-30. doi: 10.1016/j.adolescence.2011.06.008

Greed, C. (2014). Global Gendered Toilet Provision. Paper presented at the Association of American Geographers’ Annual Conference, Tampa, Florida (09.04.14).

Hennegan, J., Dolan, C., Wu, M., Scott, L., Montgomery, P. (2016). Measuring the Prevalence and Impact of Poor Menstrual Hygiene Management: A Quantitative Survey of Schoolgirls in Rural Uganda. BMJ Open, 6(12). doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2016-012596

Jewitt, S., Ryley, H. (2014). It’s a Girl Thing: Menstruation, School Attendance, Spatial Mobility and Wider Gender Inequalities in Kenya. Geoforum, 56, 137-147. doi: 10.1016/j.geoforum.2014.07.006

Juma, J., Nyothach, E., Laserson, K. F., Oduor, C., Arita, L., Ouma, C., …Phillips-Howard, P. A. (2017). Examining the Safety of Menstrual Cups Among Rural Primary School Girls in Western Kenya: Observational Studies Nested in a Randomised Controlled Feasibility Study. BMJ Open, 7(4). doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2016-015429 

Kapitako, A. (2017, July 24). Namibia: Women Slowly Embracing Use of Menstrual Cup. New Era. Retrieved from

Keith, B. (2016). Girls and Women’s Right to Menstrual Health: Evidence and Opportunities.Outlook. 1-8

Mason, M., Nyothach, E., Alexander, K., Odhiambo, F. O., Eleveld, A., Vulule, J., …Phillips-Howard, P. A. (2013). ‘We Keep It Secret So No One Should Know’- A Qualitative Study to Explore Young Schoolgirls Attitudes and Experiences with Menstruation in Rural Western Kenya. PLoS ONE 8(11). doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0079132

McMahon, S. A., Winch, P. J., Caruso, B. A., Obure, A. F., Ogutu, E. A., Ochari, I. A., Rheingans, R. D. (2011). ‘The Girl With Her Period Is The One To Hang Her Head’Reflections on Menstrual Management Among Schoolgirls in Rural Kenya. BMC International Health & Human Rights, 11(7). doi: 0.1186/1472-698X-11-7

Rubli, S. (2014, December 12). How Menstrual Cups are Changing Lives in East Africa. Huffpost.Retrieved from

Ruby Cup: Our Partners (n/d). Ruby Cup. Ruby Life Limited. Retrieved from

Ruby Cup: How your donation helps (n/d).  Ruby Cup. Ruby Life Limited. Retrieved from

Ruby Cup: Shop (n/d). Ruby Cup. Ruby Life Limited. Retrieved from

Silverman, C. A. (2015). Menstrual Management: Cameroon and Kenya. Monroe Freshman Research. 

Stewart, K., Powell, M., & Greer, R. (2009). An Alternative to Conventional Sanitary Protection: Would Women Use a Menstrual Cup? Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology 29(1): 49-52. doi: 10.1080/01443610802628841

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) (2014). Good Policy and Practice in Health Education. Booklet 9: Puberty Education & Menstrual Hygiene Management. UNESCO IIEP.

United Nations General Assembly (2015). Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.A/RES/70/1. 21 October. 

7.    Key Terms and Definitions

Menstruation: The periodic discharge of blood and tissue from the uterus

Menstrual Health Education (MHE): Education about menstruation and related topics, particularly menstrual health and hygiene. 

Adolescent: A young person developing into an adult

About the author

Ragini Mae Gomonit Chengalath

MEd, The University of Hong Kong 




Addressing the Challenges of Adolescent Girls’ Education in South Sudan

By Ayume Elly Joseph

Table of Content

1. Introduction

2. Challenges to Adolescent Girls’ Education in South Sudan

2.1. Different Gender Roles

2.2. Poverty

2.3. Early Marriage

3. Solutions to the Challenges of Adolescent Girls’ Education in South Sudan

3.1. Achieving Gender Equality

3.2. Reducing Poverty

3.3. Eradicating Early Marriage

4. Conclusion

5. References

6.  Key Words and Definitions

7. About the Author

1. Introduction

Investing in girls’ education is viewed as one of the best ways to empower and equip them to contribute to the development of their families, communities, and nations (Levine, Lloyd, Green, & Grown, 2008). In South Sudan, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has set up transformative strategies to improve girls’ education and the government set it as the country’s priority to educate every child.

Nevertheless, access to education for girls is still a challenging issue in the context (MDGs, 2010) and, as a result, many girls and women have lower levels of education compared to their male peers (Levine, Lloyd, Greene, & Grown, 2008). The illiteracy rate for women in South Sudan is estimated to be 90%, and, according to Brown (2006, p. 20), the country ‘has proportionately fewer girls going to school than any country in the world’.

It has also been observed that rural adolescent girls are more disadvantaged and vulnerable than girls in urban areas, who are at school and have higher chances to receive education (Deng, 2003). Girls face systematic drawbacks in education that include gender-based discrimination, poverty, early marriage, and the burden of domestic work. In addition, South Sudan faces a continuing war. The recent United Nations International Children Fund (UNICEF) report (2005) indicates that 59.3 million children living in countries affected by war are out of schools and the majority of them are girls. Due to socio-economic, political, and cultural challenges, 80% of these girls are unlikely to start school compared to 16% of boys.

This entry aims to explore specific challenges that affect girls’ education in South Sudan.  The findings in this analysis intend to be helpful in improving girls’ education and reducing gender inequality in the national context.

2. Challenges to Adolescent Girls’ Education in South Sudan

2.1. Different Gender Roles

Cultural norms in South Sudan see girls as house wives or carers who should do all the domestic work (Deng, 2003; Shimeles & Verdier‐Chouchane, 2016) that includes cleaning, fetching water, collecting firewood, cooking, taking care of the sick and their siblings. The Girls’ Education Strategy for South Sudan (2015-2017, p. 4) states that such culturally-determined ‘customs and behavior are enforced by male community leaders, elders, fathers, uncles, brothers, as well as mothers and aunts’ who make decisions girls are expected to respect and abide by. Domestic work load alone stands as a major challenge to girls’ education in the country as it restricts the time they can spend on studying (Lacko, 2011). This gendered culture discriminates against and denies girls’ right to receive education. As Levine et al. (2008, p. 2) note, ‘girls spend more time than boys on domestic chores, which can restrict educational, social, and economic opportunities’.  It is evidence of real exploitation of the girls and is a major factor contributing to the rising number of illiterate girls.

2.2. Poverty

Poverty is another challenging factor that affects girls’ education in South Sudan. The recurring conflict in the country has increased the number of people living below the poverty level to more than 51%, as the South Sudan Bureau of Statistics (2008) identified. Pouch (2016 p. 4) reported that

The war and resulting humanitarian crisis have displaced more than 2.7 million people, including roughly 200,000 who are sheltering at United Nations (UN) peacekeeping bases in the country. Over 1 million South Sudanese have fled as refugees to neighboring countries.

More than 90% of those who fled to Uganda are women and children. More than 50,000 people have been killed in the recent fight in addition to the 2.5 million people killed during the liberation movement between 1983 and 2005 (Pouch, 2016).

Recently, government forces have been blamed for serious abuses against civilians during the war in Juba and its aftermath. The reported crimes include extrajudicial killings (e.g., burning people alive), enforced disappearances of people, looting and property destruction (including schools and families), sexual violence (raping of school girls and women), and torture (Pouch, 2016; Shimeles & Verdier‐Chouchane, 2016). These merciless incidences have helped increase the poverty rate from 44.7% in 2011 to 65.9% in 2015 (World Bank, 2016).

The renewed conflict in July 2016 in the country has driven many more families to poverty and, as a result, to a more limited access to education. The literacy rate for women and girls has dropped to 16%. Humanitarian and development agencies have been trying to ensure the provision of aid but many people could not be accessed in the conflict affected areas. The majority of illiterate girls are out of school due to living in extreme poverty (Yousafzai, 2016). Most women have to work through difficulties in order to earn a living for their children. Besides, some parents prefer to educate their boys rather than girls due to inadequate resources and since they value boys more than girls.

2.3. Early Marriage

Early marriage is another major challenging factor limiting opportunities for adolescent girls’ education in South Sudan. Some parents think that young girls are an economic burden and consequently wish to marry off their young daughters so that they do not become an economic liability. The problem of early marriage is common among pastoralists communities in the nation. It continues to be practiced as part of traditional culture. Early/forced marriage results into a large number of girls dropping out of school (Arabi, 2011). Some girls are forced to get married by their parents in order to get dowry since they are perceived as a source of wealth for their families (Brophy, 2003). The dowry is mainly in form of cattle. These girls who cannot resist early marriage have no option but to drop out of school and start taking care of their new responsibilities as housewives. The existing laws plan to address the problem of early/forced marriages, but have not been implemented fully because such cases are handled by village chiefs (Boma or Payam). Village chiefs prefer to address issues at the local level where constitutional laws are not followed as established.

Moreover, the current conflict in South Sudan has caused unexpected harm to the education system and made the situation of girls’ education even worse. Many schools have been destroyed and many young girls had to marry early. Some non-governmental organizations (NGOs) support the government in raising awareness about the problem of early marriage but the ideology is persisting, especially in rural communities that have limited access to education due to insecurity.

3. Solutions to the Challenges of Adolescent Girls’ Education in South Sudan

3.1. Achieving Gender Equality

Although the government and municipal leaders have sought additional support from NGOs to address the issue of gender inequality, no evident outcome can be observed particularly in the countryside. Therefore, more efforts are required to achieve gender equality. As Deng pointed out ‘while there is enough policy rhetoric about girl’s education, it is important to practically address the factors related to the demand for child labour’ (Deng, 2013, p.22).

One key recommendation would be to raise awareness about the benefits of girls’ education among male community leaders and parents, especially among those who persist in practicing harmful traditional family norms. They should understand how education can build capacities for sustainable development of the communities. For example, by educating girls we can improve economic growth and reduce infant and maternal mortality rate (Yousafzai, 2016). This can be done by organizing community dialogues and trainings for the community leaders and the education actors who will later educate the rest of the people in the society. Also, awareness can be spread through consultative and participatory meetings that are aimed at advocating for improvement of adolescent girls’ education and a gender balance in leadership, decision making, and other activities.

3.2. Reducing Poverty

To eradicate poverty and improve the economic situation of its people, government intervention is required. To ensure that, the government needs to seek to establish peace in the country. Only when peace is established, will the government and NGOs be able to provide social services such as education and health to the people. In partnership with NGOs, the government can design entrepreneurship projects for people to support the education of girls and youth in general. Furthermore, more efforts should be made to make girls’ education affordable, accessible, and of high quality (Herz & Sperling, 2004); and to provide support to families who do not have the means to send their daughters to school.

3.3. Eradicating Early Marriage

Early/forced marriage is an infringement on girls’ and women’s rights and health and its reduction and elimination need to be prioritized. There are many ways to address young girls’ marriage, although there is a strong resistance to their education in some communities in South Sudan (Lacko, 2011). The practitioners of such marriages need to be made aware of basic human rights, especially the right for children to receive education. They should be taught clearly that early marriage is a harassment which is against the rights of the child. 

The multi-sectorial approach which involves all sectors ranging from the community to the government level including NGOs is the best approach to be used to ensure that girls go to school, while also addressing the underlying problems of inequality and discrimination. Communities that abide by traditional harmful practices need to be educated on the importance of girls’ education to the family and community and its socio-economic benefits. The early marriage ideology can be discouraged when all actors know that an educated girl is more valuable than an illiterate one. Hence, encouraging girls’ education would be a resource in addressing early marriage and enhancing future sustainable education development in South Sudan.

4. Conclusion

The major challenges to girls’ education in South Sudan include gender inequality, poverty, and early marriage. First, traditional gender roles in South Sudan negatively affect girls’ education as girls are perceived as domestic helpers and are not allowed to attend school. Second, the long-lasting armed conflict has increased extreme poverty and worsened the country’s education situation, as 40% of the population lives with life threatening hunger. Third, early marriages that help families receive dowry for their daughters and/or remove the financial burden of providing for a girl, further exploit girls and threaten their health, wellbeing, and future. Good quality education, however, can provide girls with the prospect of a better life as they then can marry at a later age, have healthier children, and acquire better jobs and income. Education can also help them invest their resources in their children, families, and society. Addressing the challenges to girls’ education described in the entry is the turning point for families, societies, and the nation to develop sustainably. The need to enhance girls’ education is a responsibility of every actor in the nation. Hence, a multi-sectoral system of intervention in addressing girls’ education challenges is the best way to remove the barriers to girls’ education and enhance the quality of education for sustainable development. 

5. References

Ahlen, E. (2006). UNHCR’s Education Challenges. United Kingdom: UK: Forced Migration      

Arabi, A. (2011). In Power without Power: Women in Politics and Leadership Positions in South Sudan. Hope, Pain & Patience: The Lives of Women in South Sudan, 193-213. Fanele.

Brophy, M. (2003). Progress to Universal Primary Education in Southern Sudan: A Short Country Case Study. Background Paper Prepared for the Education For All, Global Monitoring Report, 4. Retrieved from        

Brown, T. (2006). South Sudan Education in Emergency. United Kingdom: UK: Forced Migration.

Deng, L. B. (2003). Education in Southern Sudan: War, Status and Challenges of Achieving Education for             All Goals. Sudanese Journal for Human Rights’ Culture and Issue of Cultural Diversity, 4, 1-27.  

Herz, B. K., and Sperling, G. B. (2004). What Works in Girls' Education: Evidence and Policies from the Developing World? Council on Foreign Relations.

Lacko, W. T. (2011). Education: The Missing Link for Rural Girls' and Women's Wellbeing in South Sudan. Ahfad Journal, 28(2), 15-32.

Levine, R., Lloyd, C., Greene, M., & Grown, C. (2008). Girls Count: A global Investment and Action Agenda. pare, 34(4), 395-424.

Pouch. L. B. (2016), Conflict in South Sudan and Challenges Ahead. Retrieved from;

Shimeles, A., and Verdier‐Chouchane, A. (2016). The Key Role of Education in Reducing Poverty in South Sudan. African Development Review, 28(S2), 162-176.

Sudan Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). (2010). Report. Government of Southern Sudan, Southern Sudan Centre for Census Statistics and Evaluation. Retrieved from

The Girls’ Education Strategy for South Sudan (2015). South Sudan Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MoEST). UNICEF South Sudan and other contributors. Retrieved from

United Nation International Children Funds. (UNICEF). (2003). The State of the World's Children 2004-Girls, Education and Development. UNICEF.

United Nation International Children Fund. (UNICEF). (2015). South Sudan Annual Report. Retrieved from

United Nation International Children Fund. (UNICEF). (2005).  A Report Card on Gender Parity and Primary Education (No. 2). UNICEF. Retrieved from

World Bank, (The). (2016). Working a World Free Poverty. Retrieved from

Yousafzai, M. (2016). Foreword. In Sperling G., Winthrop R., Kwauk C., and Yousafzai M. (Authors). What Works in Girls' Education: Evidence for the World's Best Investment (pp. xvii-xx). Brookings Institution Press.

6.  Key Terms and Definitions

Adolescence: a person aged between 13 and 19,  the transitional stage from childhood to adulthood.

Gender Role: is a set of societal norms that dictate the type of work which is routinely done by a man or a woman based on the actual or perceived sex.

Early Marriage: is a union between two persons where one or both individuals are younger than 18 years old.

About the Author

Ayume Elly Joseph

MEd student, University of Hong Kong


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