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How Covid-19 has clawed back access gains in education

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Wape Nafasi Trust founder Abel Odira with pupils during a tour of Mainuga beach on Lake Victoria. PHOTO | POOL

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Summary

  • The pandemic has given rise to inequalities between the urban and rural communities as well as high and low-income households.
  • The economic hardships during the lockdown led to a spike in cases of domestic violence as families holed at home turned their anger on one another – parents against each other or their children.

*Editor’s note: Names have been changed to protect minors’ privacy.

Abel Odira, a teacher of English and Literature, left for his rural home in March soon after the government ordered schools shut on reporting the first Covid-19 case.

As he travelled back home, etched in Mr Odira’s mind was the project he runs in his Wimagak village in Kanyaluo location, Homa Bay, to support needy learners to access primary and secondary school education through Wape Nafasi Trust, founded in 2016.

The least on his mind was the work cut out for him. His was to be a short break, awaiting the reopening of schools, but it lasted seven months.

In the village, he grappled with the effects of school and business shutdowns and massive job losses.

The pandemic has also given rise to inequalities between the urban and rural communities as well as high and low-income households.

Lucy Wakiaga, an education consultant, says the digital divide between private and public schools has further widened disparities in the sector.

“Pre-coronavirus Kenya had made strides in the three pillars of education – access, equity and quality. The country had achieved access through free primary and secondary education. We were battling quality and equity, but with the onset of corona we have gone back to where we had moved away from,” Dr Wakiaga says.

Children in the high-density areas (slums), she says, are not accessing education.

“They are at home. Their mothers and fathers are out for menial work and in the market. So they are left at home for a big part of the day.

“When you drive along Nairobi streets, there are many children dusting people’s cars during the day hoping that you’ll wind down your window and give them some cash,” says Dr Wakiaga.

“You also have children selling groundnut and fruits, raising the issue of child labour. That’s an effect of us being unable to deal with the issue of access. It is a stark reminder of the socio-economic divide in this country.

“High-cost private schools are the ones accessing education through online learning, but a majority of public schools are not.

“If the children are not accessing education, it means they can’t access psycho-social support. They are not getting free food and sanitary pads,” says Dr Wakiaga.

Unforeseen problems

Back in the village, Mr Odira sought to solve such challenges.

“Covid-19 brought an unforeseen problem. Girls who used to get sanitary pads in school now had no access,” says the 52-year-old secondary school deputy principal.

He started a sanitary pad campaign for the schoolgirls.

“We also realised that these children engage in premarital sex or boda boda (motorcycle taxi riders) lure them just for pads. So we started a programme dubbed She-Dignity to mobilise community members to sponsor a girl,” says Mr Odira whose Trust also runs Sare Silver Spring School in Wimagak in Rachuonyo North sub-county, Homa Bay.

“We started with Sh730, which was enough to buy two pads, two panties and two masks.”

The programme initially targeted a few girls. However, the demand for pads was too high, he says.

“We were aiming at 200 girls, but we ended up supporting 563 in our first phase,” says Mr Odira.

“It also allowed us to talk to the girls about early pregnancies. We have no single case of pregnancy up to now.”

Pruto Aketch*, a Class Eight Pupil says: “Sare Silver Springs School teachers visited every home. They taught us about Covid-19 and helped us cover the syllabus. They also gave us reproductive health talk in the presence of our parents.”

Ms Beatrice Monyenche Motari, a PhD student at the University of Nairobi, concurs that the prolonged stay at home has also exposed schoolgirls to early sex debut and abuse.

“To be able to buy sanitary pads, some of the schoolgirls go to the boda boda boys who give them money in exchange for sex,” she says.

According to the Health ministry menstrual hygiene management strategy,58 percent of girls in rural and 53 percent of their urban counterparts in Kenya cannot afford sanitary pads.

The ministry further says 20 percent of girls in rural areas use either toilet paper, pieces of blankets, cloth or other natural materials instead of pads compared to 19 percent in urban areas.

However, the She-Dignity programme fell short of addressing community needs as the reality of Covid-19 set in. “There was an outcry that the boys were left out and the other villages too asked us to come up with programmes for them,” says Mr Odira.

“We launched a football tournament. It is now too big that we can’t manage,” he says.

Football teams comprising 72 teenagers, mostly secondary school students, play in tournaments.

“We give boots and uniforms to the best team,” he says.

“The challenge was with social distancing, but it allowed us to talk about Covid-19.”

Politicians love large crowds. They could not resist the urge to join the fray.

“Politicians wanted to hijack the initiative. You know that brings divisions immediately. If a politician sponsors a team and a rival does the same at a higher level, you see the emotions that are there during the tournament when the two teams meet,” he says.

“What we were looking for is a neutral partner who wants to promote talent. We have used sports to put our youth together, which was not easy.”

Family strive

The other issue the Trust had to grapple with was hunger.

“During the first two months of the Covid-19 restrictions, hunger was an issue. Parents were used to having children in boarding schools. Others were taking meals at school. Now they were at home, they were not allowed to move and were eating,” he says.

“On that one, we have to thank our politicians. They gave people food and seeds to plant,’’ says Mr Odira.

“We are in the first month of harvest. The residents are doing the second planting. They were given fertiliser and quality seeds. We are now promoting the growing of cassava.”

The economic hardships during the lockdown led to a spike in cases of domestic violence as families holed at home turned their anger on one another – parents against each other or their children.

“We still had family strife between couples with wives blaming husbands of not providing because people lost jobs, especially in the hotel industry while others were not allowed to go to the market,” says Mr Odira.

“So if you didn’t have a kitchen garden or poultry farm to supply domestic food, it created problems.”

Ms Motari says family squabbles are negatively affecting children in rural Kenya, citing Nyamira and Kisii counties where she is currently conducting research for her thesis.

“Domestic violence is prevalent, affecting both boys and girls. In single-parent households, especially those headed by fathers the beatings by parents push the children to run away from homes and seek refuge at their relatives’ homes where they are at risk of defilement and incest. In some cases, this has fuelled early marriages and pregnancies when the girls elope with their boyfriends to escape the violence,” she says.

Ms Motari adds that Covid-19 hardships have fuelled child labour, which is a cause for alarm in rural areas as schoolchildren seek menial jobs such as farm work and market trade to supplement family incomes that have dwindled due to the coronavirus-triggered economic slowdown.

Lavender Nyang’anyi*, a Form Two student in Kisii, had to become a trader at the local market to supplement the family income her mother, a single parent, earns from menial jobs.

“I started going to the market as soon as schools closed. At the market, I have to contend with county askaris who harass us as we go about our business as well as the hot sun,” she says.

For others, they had to play the role of their parents to cope with the Covid-19 hardships at home.

“My mum is disabled, and my dad is HIV positive. I am the first-born. I do all that a mother does in our Luo community — cook, babysit, fetch firewood and sell it by the beaches. I also made chapatis and sold them by the roadside until public health officers stopped the business. It was hard to get pads. Wape Nafasi Trust came to my aid. At least now I can go sell firewood and meet the cost of my monthly needs,” says Anne Apiyo* a Form Two student at a local school in Wimagak.

A lot of missteps

Dr Wakiaga says involving all stakeholders in decision-making in the early days of the pandemic would have eased the challenges.

“We had a lot of missteps in the beginning because we have a top-down approach to making decisions then we miss out what the stakeholders at the grassroots see as a need,” says Dr Wakiaga.

“The narrative has been more about the ministries of Education and Health, but the situation shows that these two cannot be the only ones engaged in the education conversation.”

She adds that the 2017 emergency policy paper has a clear structure and framework on how support systems are supposed to be developed from the national, county, sub-county up to school levels.

“If you have a clear structure then you can get stakeholders at each local level to come up with plans that respond to their needs,” she says, adding that blanket solutions to local problems may not work.

“People in, for example, Homa Bay, Meru and Mombasa have different problems. We can’t have one cookie-cutter solution to manage all the children in all the areas of the country. We can have a framework that we can use as a template to rally all the stakeholders from the grassroots to the national level so that there is a chain.”

“That’s why the idea of community-based learning was good. If the choruses from the sidelines are so negative, sometimes those in power get discouraged and throw out an idea.

“The was no engagement. The way it was packaged made it come out so badly,” she says.

“People thought it was about teaching and covering the syllabus. That was not the case. It was to be a set of activities within the community to get the children engaged.”

*Editor’s note: Names have been changed to protect minors’ privacy.