Dr Benta Abuya is a lead researcher at the African Population and Health Research Center and the principal investigator of the Improving Learning Outcomes and Transition to Secondary School project.
Her work is crucial in developing education-related policies in the country. She started out as a high school teacher and went on to earn a Master of Arts degree in Population Studies, a Doctoral Minor in Demography, PhD in Education Theory and Policy and PhD in Comparative and International Education.
You hold a master’s degree and two doctoral certificates. What motivated you to pursue education to such advanced levels?
I wanted to write and articulate girls’ education issues beyond just teaching and interacting with students in the classroom.
Having taught in local secondary schools for several years and being the head of the Humanities department at some point, I thought it was time to move up so I applied for a fellowship programme with the FORD Foundation.
I was successful and got a PhD admission to the Pennsylvania State University, college of Education.
How has education impacted your life and career?
It has given me the platform and opportunity to speak, research and articulate issues on girl’s education from the local level up to the international level.
Additionally, I have been able to blend my experience in the classroom with my research, as well as my knowledge in education policy.
If I was to start over, I would still pursue such high levels of academic knowledge to positively impact the lives of girls and women.
Being a specialist in education, what is your role at APHRC?
I lead a team of researchers in finding information about girls’ education, women empowerment and gender issues in education.
I also mentor junior researchers in proposal development, scientific writing and project management, so that they can attain their career goals.
I also sit on the senior management forum at APHRC as a senior researcher within the education team. My job is to help my organisation develop good strategies for the education sector and drive the agenda.
How does a typical day look like for you?
It varies depending on my plans and what I am focusing on in any given week.
For example, if a week is dedicated to project management, it would entail meeting with project teams to take stock of where we are in terms of implementation, review work plans, and meeting with partners.
Other times it would involve proposal development, drafting project research reports and drafting project-based scientific papers, and preparing these in readiness for publication.
What are your achievements so far in transforming Kenya’s education sector?
As a researcher, I have added my voice to the global narrative on girls’ education by addressing the existing inequalities.
One of the hallmarks of my research career has been the implementation of innovative solutions to increase the transition of girls in rural and informal settlements from primary to secondary school.
We also run a programme that aims to transform the lives of learners in disadvantaged settings and we have achieved impressive results over the last seven years.
How should parents educate their children now that schools are closed?
In households where gadgets like radios, mobile phones and TV sets are available, parents can allow their children to access online lessons, and be on standby to answer any of their questions.
This is an opportunity for parents to play their role in teaching their children, and to demystify the notion that teachers can do it all.
What gives you satisfaction in your work?
I get a lot of fulfilment whenever I implement programmes that change the lives of young girls.
For example, some girls in our programme who live in urban, informal settlements excelled in their primary school exams and proceeded to national schools.
This was a turning point for them and their families. The realisation that they, too, can achieve what their counterparts who live in the more privileged neighbourhoods of Nairobi can do, and the knowledge that they are not limited by their poor backgrounds.
What do you wish you would have done differently in terms of your career and life in general?
If I were to repeat my life again, I would follow the exact same path. Perhaps going forward, I will seek more opportunities to change the education policy either from within or through research.
What challenges have you faced in your career journey?
As a teacher, one challenge I faced was how to make parents understand the role they play in their children's education.
As a researcher, the greatest challenge is how to ensure your findings get to influence existing policy. The other challenge is on how to work with the policymakers to ensure that my recommendations get to be implemented.
What advice would you give your younger self?
I would summarise it using a quote from Nelson Mandela: Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world. Education worked for me and I believe it is a game changer for many girls and boys around the world.