School Safety and Post-2015 Educational Priorities in Kenya

Author: Reinier Terwindt

As Zimbabwe is preparing itself for upcoming elections, Minister of Education David Coltart is concerned about the impact that these elections will have on school safety. During the previous elections in 2008, president Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU PF) was accused of using rural schools as torture bases for its political campaign. ZANU PF forced schools all around the country to close down to ensure that students and teachers would attend their party’s meetings, which caused many teachers to flee their schools and find refuge in urban areas (Dube, 2013). With elections scheduled for 31st July, Coltart is concerned that little has changed. Despite a government policy that Zimbabwean schools cannot be used for political activities, ZANU PF reportedly has been organizing primary elections at rural schools around the country, which has again disrupted the educational calendar by pushing students and teachers out of what is supposed to be a peaceful and safe environment (Newsday, 2013).

The impact of election violence on Zimbabwean schools brings back memories of Kenya’s violent elections in 2008, which left more than 350,000 people displaced and 1,500 dead. According to a recent report by the Kenyan NGO Youth Alive (2008), children’s right to education was heavily impacted due to the political violence, as over 100,000 children were forced to flee their homes and schools all across the country were destroyed. Many teachers asked to be transferred away from highly affected areas to safer regions, which complicated reopening of schools when the unrest calmed down. In order to restore the safe environment that schools are supposed to provide, the Kenyan Ministry of Education launched its Safety Standards Manual for Schools in 2008. This manual recognizes safety as a key component to quality education, especially for girls, and identified a number of factors surrounding school safety that continue to form a barrier for the fulfillment of children’s right to education.

Whereas political violence has recently arisen as a threat to students’ safety in Kenya, Harber (2004) illustrates that gender based violence has historically been an enormous challenge in Kenya’s education system. Such forms of violence exploded in 1991 at the St Kizito School in northern Kenya, “when 19 schoolgirls died and 71 were reportedly raped at the hands of their male peers” (Harber, 2004, p.56).

Food Scarcity in Kenya’s Schools Source: BBC (2009)

Food Scarcity in Kenya’s Schools
Source: BBC (2009)

The school’s headmaster reacted to this tragic incident by stating that the boys did not mean to harm the girls but were simply having fun. The reaction of the district’s probation officer, Mr. Apollos, perhaps best illustrates the complexity surrounding such horrible acts of violence against female students, as he described these rape incidents by stating that “if you are a girl, you take it and hope you don’t get pregnant…[and] if girls hadn’t died in this, we wouldn’t have known about it” (Perlez, 1991)

Ruto (2009) further explores these issues of violence against girls in her study of sexual abuse of school age children in Kenya by looking at more than 70 schools in 10 districts that were characterized by lower school participation. She states that sexual violence has remained a huge challenge for Kenya’s education system, with up to 24% of Kenyan students in her study identifying schools as unsafe venues while 68% of girls and 51% of boys in her study had been sexually assaulted. Also, while teachers are often thought of as role models for their students, over 16% of girls in Ruto’s (2009) study stated to have been propositioned by their teachers with 17.4% of girls actually entering into relationships with these teachers, often in exchange for pocket money. Clearly, such forms of violence counter the school safety standard set by Kenya’s Ministry of Education (2008) that all interpersonal relationships between various stakeholders in and outside the school need to be cordial, cooperative, respectful and focused on promoting a conducive environment for teaching and learning (Ministry of Education, 2008, p.43).

Besides political and gender related violence, Kenya’s School Safety Manual emphasizes a lack of adequate healthcare and nutrition as a threat to the creation of a safe sanitary and healthful environment, which it argues to be indispensable for effective learning.

Del Rosso and Marek (1996) illustrate that after controlling for socioeconomic factors, nutrition and health heavily impact children’s performance on test scores. A report by the NGO Youth Alive (2009) states that recent increased commodity prices has complicated people’s access to food, which has in turn led to increased school dropout rates as children are forced to engage in income generating activities to ensure their immediate survival.

Students and Teachers Displaced Due to Kenya’s Violent Elections Source: Voanews (2011)

Students and Teachers Displaced Due to Kenya’s Violent Elections Source: Voanews (2011)

Besides the importance of nutrition in creating a healthy environment, Zivin, Thirumurthy, and Goldstein (2009) look at the impact of ARV therapy for Kenyan adults on their children’s educational attendance, and find that children in households of adults that receive ARVs are more likely to attend school and tend to be better nourished, which again contributes to students’ educational performance.

ARVs allow these parents to continue working, which thereby brings children previously occupied with income generating activities or home-based care related tasks back to the classroom.

Kenya’s education system clearly remains troubled with a wide range of factors that complicate the creation of safe and healthy environments that stimulate children’s learning. Discussions surrounding the global post-2015 education agenda are shifting from access to education to increasing the quality of education.

However, the case of Kenya shows that school safety continues to affect both school enrollment as well as educational performance, which should alarm policy makers at all levels of the education system.

Hopeful notions for the future of school safety in Kenya can be found in the Sauri Millennium Villages Project. After visiting schools in this Millennium Village, Kenya’s Director of the School Health, Nutrition, and Meals Unit at the Ministry of Education was impressed by the way in which Sauri’s community succeeded in establishing sustainable solutions to some of the issues discussed above. She concluded that what she saw in Sauri “was a proof that environment, sanitation, nutrition and health can be integrated in a school set up” (Ogeda, 2013). What made Sauri’s case especially impressive was its community involvement, exemplified by a stocked kitchen at one of the primary schools full of maize and beans contributed by the parents in the community to last for at least another term. Such forms of community engagement in ensuring school safety should encourage further collaboration between all stakeholders in Kenya’s education system in order to stimulate learning for all post-2015.

Reinier Terwindt is currently finishing up his M.Ed. program in International Educational Development at Teachers College, Columbia University. Before coming to Columbia, Reinier did has Masters at the University of London in Anthropology of Development and then lived and worked in Cameroon. He first worked in Anglophone Cameroon for a small NGO called Reach Out on a literacy program for Mbororo women and then worked for CARE International in the Francophone region on gender sensitivity related to HIV/AIDS. Reinier then worked for several grassroots NGOs in South Africa and Botswana and he spent the past year and a half in Malawi. Based in Lilongwe, Reinier worked on teacher training and community involvement in primary education while he also worked as the academic coordinator for a higher online education program at Dzaleka Refugee Camp. Reinier recently submitted his dissertation on public-private partnerships in education focusing on Botswana’s diamond industry, which is an area he wants to continue conducting research on. 


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