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EDUCATION-KENYA: Nomadic Schools for Mobile Girls

Joyce Mulama

GARISSA, Kenya, Oct 29 2008 (IPS) - Five years after the introduction of free primary education (FPE) in Kenya, the enrolment of girls in schools continues to lag behind in Garissa, in Kenya's North Eastern region.

Most communities living in the North Eastern region are nomadic and semi-nomadic, and depend on livestock for their livelihood.

"The nomadic life favours only boys to be in school. Parents force boys to go to school and the girls are required to look after the animals. They (parents) leave the boys under the care of relatives who ensure they go to school, while girls move around with their parents from place to place in search of pasture for their livestock," Nur Ibrahim Abdi, the Deputy District Education Officer of Garissa told IPS.

Eleven year-old Nadia Yusuf is one such girl, who has dropped out of school permanently to care for the family's herd of 100 goats, while her three brothers go to school. "My parents and I move from one water point to the next to feed our animals. If we find a water point dry, we look for the next and we lodge there for days as our goats drink and feed," she told IPS from the outskirts of the semi-desert Garissa town.

Most communities living in the North Eastern region are nomadic and semi-nomadic, and depend on livestock for their livelihood. That girls' education here is sacrificed for the sake of livestock is a matter that has come to be of great concern lately.

According to statistics from the Garissa District Education Office, the enrolment rate of girls is just half that for boys. In 2003 when FPE was introduced, the total number of boys enrolled in primary schools was 11,397, compared to 5,539 girls.

Successive years have seen enrolment of boys continue to tower over that of girls. In 2006, the enrolment of boys stood at 13,214, while that of girls was 7,120. A similar scenario was evidenced last year when 14,867 boys enrolled in schools, compared to just 8,071 girls.

"This is serious. We cannot afford to continue losing any girl from school in North Eastern at a time like now when there are all efforts to attain universal education," Abdi said. He was referring to the second Millennium Development Goal (MDG), which expects countries to achieve universal primary education by 2015. Certain initiatives are under way however, to improve enrolment of girls in Kenya's North Eastern region. These include the establishment of mobile schools to cater for nomadic children. The schools, according to Abdi, have been established at water-points where families gather for purposes of getting water and pasture for their animals. The timetable of the schools is flexible in that the schools move with the families.

But there are only five such facilities in the vast Garissa district, with an area of 33,620 square kilometres. The ministry of education says 10 more facilities have been approved by the Garissa District Education Board, and will soon be set up.

"This will ensure that children, girls in particular, access education wherever they are, even as they graze their animals," observed Salat Muhammed Adan, the area assistant chief.

It is emerging that it is not only the nomadic lifestyle of the community that has kept girls out of school, but also early marriages, which are widely practiced in the area. "This problem is more rampant in the reserves and some certain parts within the town. Parents pull their girls from school and marry them off to old men in exchange for cattle and goats. Some girls are as young as 10 years old," Adan told IPS.

He receives at least ten such cases a month, and has been using the Children's Act to arrest parents who marry off their young girls, as well as the 'husband'. The Act, established in 2001 outlaws marriage before the age of 18. For example, last August, when schools were closed, Adan arrested parents of a 15 year-old girl who had been married off to a 39 year-old man. "I found the couple sleeping and when they least expected, I moved in to arrest the man. I went for the girl's parents too. The girl is now in school."

In determining punishment for child marriages, courts have typically charged both a girl's parents and her husband, either sentencing them to community service or a fine.

Early marriage is a long-established practice in the region, and the law is fighting a difficult battle against an accepted cultural practice. According to assistant chief Adan, the arrests have deterred many parents from marrying off their girls.

"There is tangible evidence to this. Initially, majority of families used to do this a lot and in the open. But now because of the arrests, the practice has reduced and it is done in secrecy," he noted.

The problem has prompted local community-based organisations to team up with the authorities to monitor any violations of the Children's Act in regard to early marriages.

"This is a problem that has to be addressed seriously. We are involving the community and informing them of the importance of education to girls. The communities have started a door to door campaign to spread this message," noted Fariah Said, chairperson of the Assalam Muslim Women Forum. Other activities seeking to promote girl child education include the Desert Run, a yearly event whereby athletes run in the desert North Eastern region. The purpose of this activity is to among other things raise awareness on girl child education and raise funds to support education for girls in that area.

This year's event took place earlier this month in Garissa, with the poor enrolment rate for girls in schools here being the focus.

"Clearly we need to move fast to ensure as many girls as boys are in school as the clock ticks closer to the deadline set for MDGs," Florence Machio, coordinator of Women Empowerment Link, organisers of the event said.

The world is slightly past the halfway mark of 2015 deadline of the MDGs. Eight MDGs including providing universal primary education were agreed on in 2000 at a United Nations summit held in New York.

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