Something has shifted... (Part 1)
Last January in Kenya I stood in front of almost 300 Kenyan girls at Sirembe Secondary School at the beginning of their 2016 school year. The feeling that I had is hard to put into words. Their excitement about the new school year was palpable. Though excitement is not uncommon for students all over the world at the beginning of a new school year or even a new semester, for these young women it meant so much more.
For one thing, I had just informed them that, with the help of some awesome US donors, we had raised enough funds to assist 20 of them with their school fees for the 2016 school year but their excitement largely came from a deep appreciation of how precious an opportunity it was for them to even to be in school.
Let me back up a minute and take you back to my first visit in 2007 to the Sirembe Secondary School (it is a high school, grades 9th-12th). At that time the school was much smaller and only boys were allowed to board there. There were around 30-35 girls total that were attending the school at the time. More than 85% of the school’s population was boys. There were years that not even one girl made it to graduation.
The two main causes for the massive discrepancy between girls and boys being educated stem from the culture and from poverty. In this case these two are intertwined. From a cultural standpoint there is no real impediment to educating girls but when school fees are expensive and you have to chose which child to send to school, close to 99 times out of 100, the boy would be chosen. There is of course some male patriarchy involved in this, which is an unfortunate worldwide phenomenon, but the main reason circles back around to economics.
In traditional Luo culture when a girl marries she leaves her family and is from that point forward part of her husband’s family. She lives on their land and stays with them, often even when her husband dies. It is the boys who inherit their parent’s land and will build a house right next to where their parents live. It is the boys who are responsible for supporting their parents in old age. In contrast, the girls will be supporting only their in-laws and so parents would see educating them as a waste of scarce resources. Why educate your daughters if her in-laws are the only ones who will ever benefit from your investment while you are left with nothing?
People here in the US (myself included) will at first glance judge that as a selfish decision. However, an interesting point was brought to my attention in the book Poor Economics that complicated my view. They are living in a country that doesn’t have a successful social security system or any sort of safety net for older folks. As a result, impoverished elderly people in rural communities especially are left to fend for themselves. So if they have to choose, then it makes sense to choose the boy.
Of course, that is not the entire story. Over the years, I often heard people ask “Why does a girl need to be educated?” or something along those lines. At the same time I knew some very awesome women in that community that would just as quickly retort with all of the reasons they should be.
The world was also changing. Many non-profits and leaders began a worldwide movement to educate girls. Eventually this caught on and the Kenyan government started campaigns to encourage people to educate girls by showing them just how much girls can do for their communities. Many non-profits began giving money only for girl’s education worldwide and it became almost trendy to support girls. Over the years this began to reach even rural communities…like Sirembe…