UNESCO laureate harnesses communities to ensure the education of hard-to-reach girls in Kenya

A project working with community gatekeepers to transform attitudes and enable hardest-to-reach girls to go to primary school has won the 2020 UNESCO Prize for Girls’ and Women’s Education.

The awarded project, Our Right to Learn – Reaching the Unreached, is run by the Girl Child Network (GCN), a Kenyan non-governmental organization working on education, health and nutrition, rights and gender among other areas.

From harmful practices to rights-based attitudes

The Our Right to Learn – Reaching the Unreached project targets girls aged 9 to 17 who have dropped out or never enrolled in school. It works with the girl, her family, her school, and her community to ensure learning starts or continues.

‘We work in rural, hard-to-reach and marginalized areas where harmful cultural practices are rampant and households are resource-constrained,’ said GCN’s Executive Director Mercy Musomi. ‘The role of women – whether at community or national level – is always secondary to that of men.’

Along with traditional learning, the project imparts information on rights and responsibilities, life skills and decision-making, and offers support and protection in relation to embedded cultural practices such as female genital mutilation (FGM) and early and forced marriage.

‘There is a preference for boys to go to school and although laws protecting women exist on paper and state that education is obligatory, the reality is very different’, says Mercy. ‘Girls may go to school for a few years but will be forced to drop out for marriage or work.’ The situation for girls with disabilities is even more challenging. ‘We advocate that they have the same non-negotiable rights as everyone when it comes to education’, says Mercy.

Reaching communities and parents

Trained community facilitators and community tracking committees identify out-of-school girls, engage with families alongside local government representatives and monitor girls once they are enrolled in school. A tracking system monitors girls’ retention in school and their transition from primary to secondary school or technical colleges. At school, a Rights of the Child club brings together newly enrolled girls and returnees.

‘Each school has a facilitator who works directly with families and community influencers negotiating for girls to go to school. Sometimes it takes up to ten home visits to convince the family that the child should stop work or chores to learn,’ Mercy said. ‘We tell them that getting an education will ultimately bring more income to the family and break the cycle of poverty.’

‘When girls start reading letters or phone messages and counting money, parents start to see the value of education and are encouraged to invest in their daughters’ education. Other incentives include solar lamps which we supply to help girls to do their homework at night, and back to school kits with learning materials’, said Mercy.

During COVID-19-related school closures, the project leveraged existing community, private and government structures to sensitize parents on containment measures and ensure learning took place outside of the school using government radio channels, where possible.

Girls advocate for their right to education

Since its inception in 2012, the project has benefited over 51,900 children, over 25,900 of whom are out-of-school girls, through its work with 240 public primary schools in four counties in Kenya. In order to create gender-sensitive schools, GCN works with 240 Ministry of Education officials and has trained 1,440 teachers in gender-responsive pedagogy.

‘We worked with Naserian* a Masai girl from a very poor background who is now a mechanical engineer and a role model in her community’, said Mercy who has witnessed many success stories of girls empowered by knowledge and demanding their education. ‘We are quite often contacted by girls at risk of forced marriages or FGM asking for our intervention.’

For example, at age 17, Naisula* who comes from a culture with strict taboos about unintended pregnancy or pregnancy outside of marriage has not only given birth to her child but is continuing her education. By going back to school, she embodies how cultural dynamics are evolving and embracing girls’ education.

She shared: ‘I wanted to go back to school because I now understand the importance of education. I want to have a better life and a better future. An education can give me that.’

Established in 2015 with generous funding from the Government of the People’s Republic of China, the UNESCO Prize for Girls’ and Women’s Education is granted annually to two laureates and consists of an award of US$50,000 to each laureate to help further their work in the area of girls’ and women’s education.

*Names have been changed to protect the identity and privacy of girls.