Schools are no longer safe for the girl child, says UN report

Friday March 27 2015

Primary school pupils walk home after a day in school.

Primary school pupils walk home after a day in school. A UN report lists Kenya among countries where young girls are routinely exposed to violence both in and out of school. FILE PHOTO | NATION MEDIA GROUP

By ARTHUR OKWEMBA
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Kenya has been listed as one of the countries where young girls are experiencing high levels of violence in and outside school, making their progress in education a major challenge, according to a United Nations policy paper.

Forty per cent of school principals in Kenya, Uganda and Zambia admitted that sexual harassment was perpetrated by fellow pupils and 39 per cent by the teachers, says the UN Girls Education Initiative policy paper of March 2015.

This corroborates other studies that show teachers, who are expected to protect young girls, as perpetrators of sexual violence against them.

Girls who were interviewed said they do not feel safe in school, where they reported having experienced sexual harassment and sometimes rape in the hands of their teachers and male students.

It is feared that this trend in schools may stand in the way of girls’ education, which is rated as the highest form of empowerment and a sure way for them to break away from poverty.

Gender advocates now want this issue included in the post-2015 development agenda.

The latter, to be known as Sustainable Development Goals, will inherit the Millennium Development Goals when heads of state meet at the United Nations in New York at the end of this year to adopt this new development framework.

“Combating gender-based violence in and around schools will help increase school attendance, enhance children’s quality of education and improve learning outcomes.” the report says.

These are the important issues for the post-2015 development agenda.

SOBERING STATISTICS

The release of the paper coincided with the release of a report by Plan International that rings alarm bells over the rising cases of gender-based violence directed at schoolgirls, including those in Kenya.

The findings of the report provide sobering statistics on the impact of gender-based violence on the education of young girls and empowerment of women.

Girls are now not only feeling less safe on their way to school but also inside the school compound.

Twenty-eight per cent of the girls and 30 percent of the boys interviewed in the Plan International study that was conducted in eastern and southern Africa, West Africa, Central and Southern America and Asia said girls never or seldom feel safe on their way to school.

Adolescent boys “often felt they were safer than girls when travelling to and from school,” says the study, titled Hear Our Voices: Do adolescent girls’ issues really matter?, which was launched at the 59th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in New York.

Many of the girls, the study found, feared being exposed to violence as they made their way to and from school, which was likely to affect their willingness to attend school.

“The impact of low levels of safety for girls when travelling to and from school can result in them missing class or even dropping out of school,” the report says.

Patience Stephens, a specialist on education matters, says: “When girls get to school, their learning is likely to be affected by violence, and back at home, their performance is further affected by cultural and religious practices. This is an issue that has to be high on the post-2015 agenda.”

Chantal Malambo of the Congolese Women Caucus adds that violence in schools was emerging as a major threat to enrolment, performance, and completion of school by girls.

The policy paper notes that combating gender-based violence in and around schools is a vital component for achieving the post-2015 education targets.

This is important because girls’ education has been rated as having a positive impact on other indicators such as gender quality, reduction in poverty levels, reduction of maternal and child mortality, and higher living standards for families.

FREE PRIMARY EDUCATION

But addressing violence might not be the only way to increase access, performance and completion of school by girls.

School fees and lack of latrines are further complicating girls’ attendance and their completion of primary and secondary education.

Speakers at the launch of the Plan International study concurred that the highest number of girls attending school was recorded in countries where there was free primary education.

Problems start when it comes to transition to secondary school, where fees is charged. As a result, in some countries, parents put boy’s education above that of girls when deciding who is to go to secondary school.

“In my country, faced with resource limitations, the parents prefer to pay fees for the boy than (for) the girl, resulting in fewer girls pursuing secondary education,” says Cote d’Ivoire’s Minister for Education Kandia Kamara.

Speaking at the forum, dubbed Rallying to End Gender-Based Violence in Schools, at the United Nations Children’s Fund at the 59th Session of the CSW, Kamara said her country has banned enrolment fees in schools and is working towards making school fees affordable to enable more girls to attend higher learning.

In addition to fees, young girls complained about lack of physical amenities such as toilets and said this affected their learning.

Girls interviewed said they felt less safe when they had to share latrines with boys. Such latrines, they said, were crime zones and health hazards, making the school environment less safe for them.

In Kenya and other parts of Africa, girls have in previous studies highlighted girly-only latrines and the provision of sanitary pads as key factors in attending school during their menstrual cycles.

Latrines for girls offer them the privacy and dignity they yearn for when they are menstruating.

Despite all these challenges, there is a glimmer of hope.

Many of the adolescent girls in Africa and other parts of the world feel their parents are aware of the value of girl’s education, with both their fathers and mothers supporting their studies.