By Angel Mbuthia,
Secretary for Gender and International Relations.
All-Africa Students Union.
As we celebrate the International Day of the Girl Child, I am reminded of the Beijing conference of 1995 and the many strides the globe has made since then. There are a number of things I want to celebrate, for example, Information about Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights is more available, an increased number of women are getting into leadership, and more girls can access education.
My goal has always been to advocate for and contribute to these continued efforts for sustainable development in my community. In this article, I will explore issues affecting girls and women like, Education, SRHR, and leadership in Kenya.
Education for All
In 2012, the Republic of Kenya, Ministry of Education collaborated with The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, to publish an End Decade Assessment based on Education between 2001 to 2010. Their plan was to meet the learning needs of all children, youth, and adults by 2015. Although this was not fully met, the strides made in education have been significant.
An example of strides in education is the introduction of Free Primary Education (FPE). FPE was introduced in Kenya in January 2003 by the NARC government and then did the same for secondary education in 2008. This was the second attempt to introduce the policy in post-colonial Kenya after the first attempt back in the 1970s failed to achieve much. As a result, about three million more students were enrolled in a primary school in 2012 than in 2003 and the number of schools also increased by 7,000.
According to UNESCO, there are an estimated 130 million girls between the ages of 6 and 17 out of school. 15 million primary school-aged girls will likely never enter a classroom in their lifetime. Also, only 39 percent of rural girls attend secondary school. This is far fewer than rural boys (45 percent), urban girls (59 percent), and urban boys (60 percent).
In 2017, Kenya made another significant change for the second time in history introducing a new system of education; the Competency-Based Curriculum (CBC), to replace the traditional 8–4–4 system introduced by the late President Moi in 1985.
Recently, the impact of free education for all programs can be seen in the doubled number of university level enrollment between 2012 and 2014. Today, enrollment in primary education in developing countries has reached 91 percent but 57 million primary-aged children remain out of school, more than half of them in sub-Saharan Africa, and one in four girls is still not in school. This is because of other social barriers like gender disparities and lack of political good will.
During the GCE’s Global Action Week 2018 the All-Africa Students Union in partnership with the 100 Million Campaign launched the Education Enrollment Programme in an effort to get every child out of labor. This was later published on the Global Campaign for Education Blog that strongly echoed our message to leaders as we asked them to make commitments for Education for children. Since GAWE 2018, AASU and the Global Campaign for Education have been working hand in hand in the quest to promote the education rights for children around the world.
The gender disparity has been widened by the covid-19 pandemic due to the lockdowns and social restrictions that have become the new normal. This has brought out a mirage of issues ranging from mental health crisis, gender-based violence, to unemployment and teenage pregnancies. In the efforts to respond to the Teenage pregnancy Menace the All-Africa Students Union in partnership with UNESCO and the 100 Million Campaign is running a Girls Back to School Campaign 2020 to help the affected girls get back to school. This is in line with our mandate to ensure that education is accessible, affordable and of good quality for African Students. We shall work with our wide network of students and student leaders from across Africa to run the campaign to ensure that no teenager is left behind.
Gender Equality in Leadership
I envision a Kenya where young women can actively participate in governance and politics. Well, that is just a dream because only 9.8% of the tenth Parliament was composed of women, and only 20.7% of the eleventh (sitting) Parliament is women, making Kenya have the lowest representation of women leaders in East Africa. Young women still experience discrimination based both on gender and on age, creating a social barrier that most men don’t have to deal with.
The Kenyan constitution of 2010 addressed the problem of gender inequalities in Kenya, by emphasizing on the equality of both gender and their participation in the country’s development agenda. The constitution sets a framework stating that not more than two-thirds of the members of elective public bodies should be of the same gender. 10 years later, we still have challenges and have not yet implemented the 2/3 gender rule, leading to a case filed to safeguard the constitution and rule of law on this.
In March this year, Kenya’s High Court found that our Parliament had violated women’s right to equality, and freedom from discrimination after their failure to enact the two-thirds gender rule, which may lead to the dissolution of parliament. Although we have not yet achieved the desired representation, acts like this show increased energy to amplify women’s voices and participation in decision making. I can see common mwananchi, more organizations like Femnet, Dada’s Rising, Fatuma’s Voice, and elected leaders, prioritizing and participating in eliminating the issue of gender inequality.
Underrepresentation in leadership and unequal access to required resources are great social barriers to change. Women are forced to follow discriminatory laws and attitudes that restrict their leadership and full participation in public life. This is one of the reasons why I decided to get into active leadership so that I may change the perceptions and support the young women who aspire for the same.
Students’ Unions in Africa are slowly embracing more female student leaders as presidents or chairpersons which is quite encouraging because it is in student leadership where national leaders are born. As the Secretary for Gender and International Relations, I have been actively working on training programs that identify effective female leaders, strengthen their leadership skills so as to accelerate them into leadership. In March 2020, we ran the AASU SHEGAME AWARDS 2020 that saw us celebrate and bring to the limelight, young female student changemakers.
SRHR (Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights)
The conversation of Gender Equality is incomplete without looking at related issues like safe sex. Reproductive health creates awareness among adolescents about safe sexual practices and helps prevent STIs, by protecting both the mother and the child from infectious diseases, and even enabling the delivery of healthy children.
As a society, we have left the bulk of the responsibility of contraception and reproductive health to women. This has exposed more women to the associated risks. Consequently, more than one of every three women have experienced either physical or sexual violence at some point in their life, affecting their physical, mental, and sexual and reproductive health. By the end of 2017, 21.7 million people living with HIV were receiving antiretroviral therapy. Yet more than 15 million people are still waiting for treatment.
Women still must deal with issues like abortion, female genital mutilation, child and forced marriage among other social barriers, further preventing them to fully participate in society as they would like to. Women’s access to sexual and reproductive health rights has a significant impact on their education and political participation, as well as on subsequent outcomes related to income, family stability, mental health and happiness, and children’s well-being.
Almost 750 million women and girls alive today were married before their 18th birthday and only 24 percent of national parliamentarians were women as of November 2018, a small increase from 11.3 percent in 1995. Women deserve equal rights to land and property, just as much as sexual and reproductive health, and this will only happen if we continue speaking up until these rights are achieved.
As a girl who went through challenges to get to where I am, I appreciate the strides made for the girl child and I am hopeful that future generations will live the dream we all have.
There are many things we can all do to fast-track this process: We can start by requiring journalists to report women’s stories more accurately and without gender bias. Secondly, youth can create peer groups to normalize and openly talk about sexual and reproductive health rights. This also includes making education accessible and relevant to all people. Lastly, we can lobby current leaders to make amendments to the Political Parties Act, the Elections Act, and other legislative bodies that can be used to achieve equality for better services because there cannot be sustainable development without Gender Equality.
I believe that a better, brighter world for girls is a better and brighter world for everyone.