The Kenyan Government has made spirited efforts to attain the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) and Education For All (EFA) goals given the realization that investing in the education is critical for socio-economic and political advancement of the country. This study has established that despite this noble objective, getting education to hard-to-reach children, especially girls in arid and semi arid regions (ASALs) is a great challenge. Poor access to education and gender imbalances are largely attributed to prevailing poverty, negative attitudes and lack of commitment from parents towards sending their child girl to school, cultural practices such as female genital mutilation (FGM) and early marriage, insecurity and conflicts, unfriendly  school environments, irrelevant curriculum and quality education and lack of role models within the community. The Government needs to address these obstacles and improve learning conditions so that marginalized children are able to enroll, participate and complete school.

Text by Victor F. O. Ombati and Mokua Ombati




     The provision of educational and training opportunities to all Kenyans has been the overall development strategy of the Government of Kenya (GoK) since independence in 1963. Education plays a significant role in economic, social and political development of a country. It was envisioned that the development of education would lead to accelerated economic growth, more wealth and income distribution, greater quality of opportunity, availability of skilled manpower, decline in population growth, long life, better health outcomes, low crimes rate, national unity and political stability. The perceived role of education in development has led to the national government’s high expenditure on the sector compared to other social sectors. Educational funding has continued to grow from Ksh 8.4 million in the 1961/ 62 financial year, which was 14 per cent of the total expenditure, to Ksh 28.4 million in 1971/ 72, Ksh 194 million in 1982/83, Ksh 743.44 million in 1992/93, Ksh 1,062.7 m in 1993, Ksh 66,417.93 m in 2002/3 to Kshs 247.7 billion in the 2012/ 13 financial year (Otieno &Colclough, 2009. The funding has resulted to remarkable expansion of all sector of education both in number of schools established and children/students enrolled. The number of educational institutions has risen to nearly 80,000 this year from just above 6,057 at independence, with the enrolment in primary schools having grown to nearly 10 million (9,970,900 in 2012) from just 891,553 in 1963. Secondary schools had 1,914,823 pupils in 2012 from 28,764 at independence. While the estimated number of university students scattered all over the World in 1963 was estimated at 7,000, enrolment at local public and private universities is estimated at more than 240,000 (UNESCO, 2012; Sifuna, 1990).

         The remarkable expansions have, in turn, resulted in an increased participation of groups previously with little or no access to schooling. Expansion of educational opportunities with an aim of improving access for all is anchored in international frameworks including universal declaration of Human Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the World Conference on Education for All in 1990 (EFA), the Beijing Platform of Action, the Dakar World Conference on Education for All and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Kenya has therefore committed herself to pursuing gender equality in all spheres of development and putting in place measures to redress the existing inequalities. The Kenya Government, being a signatory to major international conventions and agreements on human rights and gender equality is expected to pursue policies aimed providing equal educational opportunities to all its citizens. Of crucial importance is to ensure that girls have equal educational opportunities as boys given the multiplier effect that girls or women education has not only for themselves and their families, but also to the society at large.

           Faster economic growth: Educating girls and women is critical in spurring economic development.

      Studies have established that systematic exclusion of girls and women from school and their participation in labor force translates into less educated workforce, inefficient allocation of   labor force lost productivity, and these consequently diminishes progress in economic development (World Bank, 2001;WHO, 2006). More educated women work more hours in the market labor force, broadening the tax base and thereby potentially reducing tax distortions. Female education creates powerful poverty-reducing synergies and yields enormous intergenerational gains (Tembon and Fort, 2008).Female education is also correlated with increased economic productivity, more robust labor markets, higher earnings, and improved societal health and well-being (Ruth Levine et al, 2009; Schultz, 1993). World Bank study has established that, on the whole, one more year of primary education beyond the mean boosts a person’s eventual wage rate on average by 5 percent to 15 percent, with generally higher returns for girls than for boy. One more year of secondary school beyond the mean boosts a person’s eventual wage rate on average by 15 percent to 25 percent, again with a generally higher increase for girls than for boys. Increasing the number of women with education boosts per capita income growth, as does moving toward parity in the number of years of education for girls and boys (2006).


             Social Development: Girls or women’s education leads to significant social development. Some of the most notable social benefits include decreased fertility rates and lower infant mortality rates, and lower maternal mortality rates. The health and schooling of children are more closely related to their mother’s education than father (Schultz, 2002; King and Hill, 1993). More educated women tend to be healthier, are likely to take care of their families, desire to have fewer children and provide them with good better health care and education, all of which eventually improve the well-being of all individuals and lift household out of poverty (WHO, 2006; Schultz, 1999; Subbarao, & Raney,1995).Other benefits of women’s education captured in studies include lower levels of HIV infection, domestic violence and harmful practices toward women, such as female genital cutting and bride burning (Rihani, 2006).

          Political participation: There is connection between women’s education and political engagement. Educated women are more likely to get involved in the decision-making process of their families, community or country. Education enables women to engage in civic participation, attend political meetings, and secure political benefits for themselves and others (World Bank, 2001). Education enhances other factors supporting political engagement, such as access to high-income jobs that provide the resources and contacts for political activity, and access to non-political associations such s charitable organizations or   religious establishments that can be a recruitment ground or political activity. Evidence also points to an increased likelihood of democratic governance in countries with well-educated women population (Ndlovu, and Mutale, 2012).

             Kenya’s  Arid and SemiArid Regions

The arid and semi- arid (ASALs) constitute 84% of the land mass in Kenya. The area is home to 20- 30% of the total Kenya’s population which would translate to around 8.75 million people. Annual rainfall in arid areas ranges between 150mm and 550mm per year, and in semi-arid areas between 550mm and 850mm per year. Temperatures in arid areas are high throughout the year, with high rates of evapotranspiration (UNDP, 2013; Orodho, 2006). The arid counties are geographically synonymous with the concept of ‘Northern Kenya’, which refers to the area once known as the Northern Frontier District (NFD) (area appearing in red and yellow on the map below). The semi arid counties include the marginal areas of West Pokot, parts of Marakwet, Keiyo, Baringo, and Kajiado have been included these zones. The ASALs are home to about 14 million people and approximately 70% of the national livestock herd (Orodho, 2006; Abdi, 2011; GoK, 2006). ASALs are vast and sparsely populated with nomadic pastoralist communities comprising the Nilotic groups of the Turkana Maasai, Samburu, and Cushitic groups including the Somali, Borana, Rendille, and Gabra. Pastoralist that involves the keeping of animals( cattle, camels, donkeys, sheep and goats) for food (meat, milk and blood), commerce, transport and prestige is the dominant production system in the arid counties, and in some semi-arid counties as well (Okoti,   N’gete, Ekaya, and Mbuvi, 2004). Crop production is very limited because rainfall is too little to sustain agriculture farming.

             The ASALs are among the nation’s poorest, where weak infrastructure, widespread insecurity, frequent droughts and limited livelihood options keep many residents in conditions of poverty and vulnerability. Majority of people in these areas live below the poverty line. The area lack and have inadequate basic foundations of development. Access to education, health, water, diverse dietary intake, infrastructure, energy, and ICTs are all well below the national average. These are critical enablers of growth and their absence is holding the region back (UNDP, 2013). Majority of the inhabitants ASALs depend on humanitarian organization like Oxfam-GB, Merlin, Red Cross, CARE, UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund), Medicines Sans Frontier, Catholic mission and Terre des Hommes for services like medical, education, relief, emergence etc.


Category District % ASAL Annual Rainfall
Category A Arid(85-100% arid) Turkana, Samburu, Moyale, Isiolo, Wajir, Mandera, Garissa, Tana River, Ijara 62% 200‐550 mm
Category B Semi arid Arid 30-84 Kitui, Makueni, Taita Taveta, Kajiado, Machakos,Kajiado, Mwingi, Tharaka, Laikipia, West pokot, Kwale, Kilifi, Baringo, Meru North, Lamu, Narok, Meru, Malindi, Elgeyo Marakwet, Mbeere 36% 550‐850 mm
Category C Dry areas (10‐29% arid) Nyeri, Rachuonyo, Suba, kuria, Thika, Koibatek, Migori, Bondo Nakuru 2%

Source: Draft ASAL Policy (2006); MSDNK (2008) adapted from Ruto, Ongwenyi, and Mugo (2009).





             Education in Arid- Semi- Arid Zones.

Educational marginalization has always characterized the ASALs Kenya from the period the Christian missionaries established formal Western education in Kenya in the first half of the 20th century (Sifuna, 2005). The introduction of formal education in ASALs Kenya occurred years after it was developed in other parts of the country (Tembon & Fort, 2008). The educational activities of the missionaries and colonial administration favored areas of the country with ideal conditions for agriculture and greater concentrations of people that had sedentary life styles.

             Attempts made to provide education in ASALs largely failed given the fact that nomadic communities regarded formal education as antagonistic to their cultural, social and economic way of life. Formal education was unresponsive to their needs. It lacked relevance to the mode of life of these communities- resulting in a lack of interest and motivation, thereby causing low enrolment figures and high drop-out rates (Abdi, 2011; GOK 2012).   Formal education was only been alien, but was associated as a vehicle of spreading Christianity to undermine the Shariah (Islamic) education (Abdi, 2012). Muslim children normally attend Koranic schools known as Madrassa or duksi. Here, they are purely taught religion, some basic arithmetic and Arabic language. They did not embrace Western formal education and their children especially among the conservative Muslims missed going to school. However, in recent times, following series of discussions between the Government and with Muslim leaders, integrated religious learning with the secular education has been developed and established. The move has been accepted and children from Muslim dominated regions are reaping immense benefits from the Islamic Integrated Education Program which is now a national program. Madrassa and duksi teachers have been trained leading to increased enrolment and boosted the quality of leaning. Ruto, Ongwenyi and Mugo have noted that the relative success of alternative provisions of education like the Dugsi and Madrassa in Northern Kenya lend credence to the argument that there is a need for a different curriculum – one that is designed to be relevant to nomadic life and enshrined within the religious and cultural conceptions of a people(2009).

             At independence in 1963, the arid- semi arid regions of the country exhibited extensively lower access, participation, achievement and completion   rates to formal education (Sifuna, 2005).The ruling party, Kenya African National Union (KANU) promised in its published a manifesto entitled, “What a KANU Government offers you” a minimum of seven years of free primary education. In the 1969 election manifesto, the party again re-echoed its commitment to providing seven years of free primary education especially to neglected areas during the colonial rule so that every Kenyan could share fully both in the process of nation building and in enjoying the fruits of government labor. In the more sparsely populated areas, the government pledged to continue its programs of building primary and secondary schools so that every child in those districts which had a low-average enrolment would get an opportunity to attend school (Sifuna, 2005). In 1971, a presidential decree abolished tuition fees for the districts with unfavorable geographical conditions since these were said to make the populations in these areas poor. These included such areas as North-Eastern Province, the districts of Marsabit, Isiolo and Samburu in Rift Valley Province; Turkana, West Pokot, Baringo, Narok, Elgeyo-Marakwet and Olkejuado in Rift Valley Province, as well as Tana River and Lamu in Coast Province. The   Government also built and supported boarding schools and launched a feeding program in these areas. The  idea  was  to  encourage  more  parents  to retain  their  children  in  school (Sifuna, 2004).

             In 1973, another presidential decree made education free for the first four years of   primary education throughout the country. Ngaroga observes that the presidential decree was one of the most dramatic political pronouncements since it took the planners and the public unaware. The  immediate result  was  increase  in  enrollments  in primary schools from  1.8  million in 1973  to 2.8  million in January 1974. The Ministry of Education had to rethink of its priorities and operations in order to cope with the staggering rise of pupil enrollment (2001). In 1979, the Government then again launched free primary education program for the whole of the primary cycle with the aim of achieving free and universal primary education. This was in line with the Gachathi Report recommendation of 1976 that called for an extension of the waiver of fees to the full seven years of primary education by1980 (UNICEF & World Bank, 2009).

             In mid 80s, the Government found itself without enough money to maintain the free education program, leave alone to expand it. This led to the re-introduction of minor levies charges by schools popularly known as cost sharing (Manuh, 1998). The policy of cost sharing included household contributions in the form of formal fees (school levies and examination fees), indirect charges (for uniforms and books) and informal payments (including illicit fees to teachers). Household contributions were seen as being vital to the maintenance of quality basic education in situations of extreme budgetary constraints (Ombati & Mokua, 2012; World Bank, 1988). However, few parents especially in ASALs areas were able to shoulder the increased costs of educating their children and this resulted in a decline in enrollment rates at all levels of education, especially among the poor parents or communities.

             In January  2003, the  NARC  (National  Rainbow  Coalition)  government which had dislodged KANU from power reintroduced free primary education implemented  the  free primary education programme with the aim of providing more opportunities to the disadvantaged school  age  children  (Otach, 2008). The  policy abolished  school  fees  and  other  levies  arguing  that  fees  and  levies  posed  a serious  hindrance  to  children  wanting  to  access  education  in  schools  (Okwach & George, 1997). The programme created a positive outcome because it resulted in increased enrollment from 92% in 2002 to 104% in 2003 of the school age children population. More than 1.5 million children who were previously out -of -school joined primary schools (Otach, 2008; UNESCO, 2005).

             The Government and nongovernmental organizations interventions to mitigate the historical educational deprivation of ASALs has only borne minimal effect. A significant proportion of the population aged 6-17 in Northern Kenya has never been to school and enrolment rates are far below the national average. The ASALs account for just over 20 percent of Kenya’s primary school age population, but almost half of the out-of-school population. They also account for 9 of the bottom 10 counties in the national league table for enrollment. At secondary level, the NER in arid areas in 2007 was 5.52%, against a national average of 24.2%. For 60% of students in Northern Kenya there is no school within 6km; for nearly 50% there is no school within 11km (GoK 2010 ; 2009)

             The rates of retention, survival and completion of school in Northern Kenya are very low. The primary completion rate in the north in 2007 was 42.3%, compared with 81% nationally. More specifically, 56.4% of boys completed but only 27.6% of girls. There are twice as many boys as girls in secondary school. Girls enrolment girls in North Eastern Province was a mere 16.5% when 99.2% of girls in Nyanza Province were in school in 2007 (GoK, 2008; 2012). The (few) girls who make it through the education system to take the secondary school exam are half as likely as boys to achieve the grade required to secure state funding for higher education. Educational participation in terms of access, retention and progression of children especially girls from one level of education to another in ASALs continues to be extremely lower compared to sedentary regions (Ruto, Ongwenyi and Mugo 2009).

             Obstacle to Girl’s Education

             In the ASALs, opportunities to access quality education are a pipe dream to many of the children. Enrolling and completing school is out reach for the girl child in particular because of the high levels of poverty, female genital mutilation, biological challenges (including lack of adequate sanitation facilities), child marriage, socio-cultural conceptions of gender and education for girls, domestic responsibilities, lack of female role models including teachers, long distances to travel to and from school, and harsh terrain and rough weather conditions that jeopardizing girl child personal safety.


             Poverty: Most people living in the ASALs are livestock producers. ASALs are drought, famine and hunger prone, primarily because of their peculiar eco-climatic conditions. For example, when droughts hit, like the one in 2006, it killed an estimated 70 percent of animals leading to enormous loss economically. Drought brings about poverty and incidence of poverty in counties such as Marsabit, Wajir, Mandera and Turkana exceeds 80 percent – double the national average (ACTED, 2007). The ravages of drought and other natural calamities have been making it difficult, if not impossible, for children from poverty stricken household to enroll, stay and complete school –slowing or preventing the progress towards specific EFA goals and targets. Most families in ASALs Kenya are more concerned with survival than bearing the extra burden (both direct and indirect) required to have and maintain one in school. Even with the strides that the Government has taken towards meeting the Millennium Development Goal of universal primary education by 2015 by eliminating school fees, direct costs that require parents to pay fees such as Parent Teacher Association (PTA), harambee (self help) fee, textbooks, uniforms, caution fees, exam fees and extracurricular activity fees, overburden the ability of some families meeting those expenses (Orodho, Waweru, & Getenge, 2014; UNESCO, 2010). Children from poorer backgrounds are pressured to withdraw from or not start school increases as they find the cost of education prohibitive. Akai, 15, (not her real name), who dropped out of school in form three   due to lack of school fees would be busy chasing her sweet dream of becoming a nurse instead of doing odd jobs, sometimes putting her life at risk, in the name of earning a living at Lodwar Town. Omar Bwana, aged 14, like other girls in Tana River County is supposed to be in school but she is peddling foodstuff at Garsen Town because she was send way from school for failing to pay for activity and building fund, and she did not have the required school uniform.

             Poverty plays a major role to lack of enrollment or drop out from school. (Colclough, 1994). Besides, as socio-cultural norms based on patriarchy prevail, families tend to give priority to boys’ education when faced with financial constraints. When money for school fees is scarce, the boy is given preference over the girl (Ruto, Ongweny, and Mugo, 2008). “I will give priority to my sons because girls marry off to benefit the home they are married too, “said Kitili Nzoma of Kitui County. The cultural preference of educating boys to girl’s stems from the tradition that girls leave their parents’ village and become a member of the husband’s family upon marriage. It is a common belief among the pastoralist communities that the boy is the pillar of the family, and would take care of his parents and parent’s livestock in old age. Poverty also makes it difficult for ASALs communities to quip their schools to offer good education. In some situations, poor households often offer girls for marriage to raise some dowry for the families – bringing onto the fore child mothers who lack vital knowledge about sexual and reproductive health, including HIV and aids.

             Female genital mutilation: Female genital mutilation (FGM) often referred as female circumcision widely practiced among the among Somali 97%, Maasai 93%, Kalenjin 48%, Kamba 27% Turkana 12%, Mijikenda 6%, Samburu, and Gabra involves partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. FGM is a culturally-entrenched rite of passage that is often used to mark a girl’s transition into adulthood (FAWE, 2000). FGM is often motivated by beliefs about what is considered appropriate sexual behavior, with some communities considering that it ensures and preserves virginity, marital faithfulness and prevents promiscuity/ prostitution. The Marakwet people of Rift Valley of Kenya, for example, regard FGM, performed at puberty and accompanied by much singing and dancing, as an important rite of passage between childhood and adulthood, and between an asexual and sexual life. FGM prepares girls for responsible married life. Girls who are not circumcised, it is argued, are immoral, make rude wives and daughters-in-laws. The Somali, Boran and Maasai people believe that girls must undergo FGM a prerequisite to marriage and a way of making them ‘clean’ and aesthetically beautiful. In the Marakwet culture, it has never been heard that a girl cannot undergo the same and be recognized as a woman. Girls who have not undergone FGM are viewed as non-adults, and the idea of abandoning the practice is unthinkable. Among the Samburu and Somali, the message of FGM is drummed into the girls’ head right from a tender age that no man will marry an uncircumcised girl. Among the Pokot, a girl from childhood age is psychologically prepared for ages 8 to 12 when she will go through what every woman is said to cherish- female genital mutilation, leading to early marriage to a suitor only known to her parents. She is told that she has no choice over who marries her- even if he is her grandfather’s age, and even if she will make the fifth or sixth wife. Soraya Miré, 12, a Gabra was teased and taunted with peers and they refused her company until she was “done.” When I told my mother, she quickly arranged for my FGM not only to make me   acceptable to my peers and   future husband, but also to rein in my perceived   “wildness,” she remarked .Young girls will often be under strong social pressure, including pressure from their peers and risk victimization and stigmatization if they refuse to under FGM.

             In regions where communities practice FGM, girls’ enrolment in school at basic levels is very high, but they drop out in large numbers as they move to higher grades because at this stage, they have attained age when they ought to undergo some cultural rites of passage (FGM), leading to womanhood. “I was forced to drop out of school, to undergo FGM, and thereafter, I was offered to marriage becoming a second wife to a 50 year old man picked by my parents. Not a single girl from my village has completed s school,” said Santoi Mpaaya of Kajiado County. The Somali people believe that if a girl is   not subjected to suna (cutting) she will not be accepted for marriage,” said Asthma Ibrahim Jabril. The reason Nairo Bonaya of Isiolo County was barred from attending school by her parents was to subject her to FGM and have her marry to a suitor only known them. The Somali, Boran and Rendille  believe that uncut girls and women  will bring not only bring omen dishonor to the family and girl, but also uncontrolled sexuality behavior, undoing the traditional and religious requirement, nobody wants to marry uncut women or children, it is necessary condition for marriage, and FGM bestows one with genital beauty and cleanliness. She ran away and found refuge with her aunt who was afraid to keep her for long dues to threats from her family. Again she had to run and take refuge in a rescue center for girls. Her father stormed the center and wanted to force her back home, but when the center’s management threatened him with police action, he left and did not return. Nyeris of West Pokot County was pulled out of school by her parents at age 13 and subjected to FGM to ‘prepare her for marriage. She ran away before the wedding day and took refuge in a girls rescue center. Majority of Somali girls like the Samburu, Boran and Marakwet withdraw from school after FGM to marry because the ceremony signals that one is of age to marry and raise a family (Gachiri, 2001; Njeng’ere, 2013).

             Biological changes: It is a widespread but unacknowledged problem that menstruation and lack of sanitary products is a barrier to girls’ schooling. Studies have established that many girls in developing countries, especially those of Africa miss school and stay at home because of menstruation. Regular absences from school can lead to gender imbalances with the male students attending up to 15% more classes than the female students and rising higher in the class rankings (Chebii, 2008). The gender disparity and routine absences often lead to female students falling behind or dropping out of school entirely shrouded in mystery, menstruation for young girls in most of the developing countries often ends up being a stumbling block for their education (Oster&Thornton, 2010). Many girls in ASALs Kenya reach the state of puberty having no idea of what is happening to them when they began menstruating. They are ignorant about sexual reproductive health because their parents and teachers do not talk to them about puberty and menstruation. Some teachers even send girls home when they menstruate. “Before learning that menstruation is a natural thing, that every girl in of my age goes through it, I used to be absent from school for all days of my period,” said Mayo, 12, from Tharaka County. Among some ASALs communities, it is not just embarrassment and potential teasing about stained clothes during their periods that causes them not to attend school. There are also parental perceptions to contend with. “So when she begins to menstruate, remember it was already a debate in her mother’s mind whether she should let the girl be in school anyway.” Ms. Amina goes on, “then she comes home with a period and her mother paused “… this is not a girl, she is a woman, and she should be looking for a husband not spending time with “children.” Most girls drop out or miss significant amount of school during menstruation, not simply because they fear being teased by their classmates if they show stains from their period, but also because they are not educated about their periods, and their need for safe and clean facilities is not prioritized. In some cultures, menstrual blood is considered dirty and harmful, resulting in girls who are menstruating being restricted from participating in social activities for fear that they may ‘contaminate’ others what they may touch (FAWE, 2006). Sefwa was educated from an early age to know that she had to isolate herself during her periods “I was told I cannot leave the house when menstruating least I come in contact with animals – it will make the stock perish,” said remarked. In some communities, menstruating girls are not allowed to be in the kitchen to cook or to do the dishes, and neither are they allowed to associate with others during their menstruation period. This in turn fosters a stigma of restrictions creating a perception that menstruation is shameful and that menstrual blood is harmful (Bharadwaj and Patkar, 2004).

             In Kenya, one in every ten girls often miss four days of school a month due to lack of access to feminine hygiene products. Menstruation products such as tampons and pads are not only easily available but where they are available, they are too expensive for women and girls or families who are already making sacrifices to send their girls to school (UNICEF, 2005). “Before UNICEF brought for us the sanitary towels we used to just stay home when menstruating and return to school when finished,” said Lehema. Zala, 7th grade, is on the onset of puberty, and with the realities of menstruation in a school where there is no latrine, no water, no hope of privacy other than the shadow of a bush, and no girlfriends with whom to communicate with, like others she would have to stay home and return to school when she is through with it. The lack of sanitation facilities in schools contributes absenteeism and some of some girls, especially when they reach the 6th and 7th grades, according to one of the school principal interviewed in Mandela County. The cultural implications of menstruation as a stage in a woman’s development may be used to take girls out of school – the idea being that if a girl is ready for motherhood, then she is ready for marriage (Chebii, 2008). UNESCO assert that one in 10 African adolescent girls miss school during menses and eventually drop out because of menstruation-related issues, such as the inaccessibility of affordable sanitary protection, the social taboos related to menstruation, and the culture of silence that surrounds it (2005).

             Early marriage: Early marriage means marriage or cohabitation with a child or any arrangement made for such marriage or cohabitation. UNICEF & GoK, 1998:53) points out that child bride are common among the nomadic pastoralists of Kenya (The Samburu, Maasai, Turkana, Pokot, Somali, Rendile, Borana and Oromo. The religious and traditional norms dictate that marriage occurs or shortly after, puberty, especially for girls. Nomadic girls traditionally marry between the ages of 10-13 years. Parents choose to have girls marry early for a number of reasons. Some families have girls child marrying as soon as she “crosses the childhood bridge” to enable the family to get dowry or pride prices and, since a girl joins her husband’s family upon marriage, her family is relieved of the economic burden of supporting her (Sifuna, 2005; Dyer, 2001). Early marriage is associated with of accumulation of wealth in some families where parents of the girl may opt to receive a bride price to meet some needs. Parents choose to marry off their daughters early for a number of reasons. Poor families may regard a young girl as an economic burden and her marriage as a necessary survival strategy for her family. They may think that child marriage offers protection for their daughter from the dangers of sexual assault, or more generally, offers the care of a male guardian. In most cultures of the nomadic communities in Kenya, marrying a girl young presumes the girl’s sexuality, therefore the girl’s family’s honor, will be “protected” but ensuring that the girl marries as a virgin. If a girl gets pregnant before marriage, she is deemed a disgrace to her family and society, and the only way to “salvage” her reputation is to leave school and get married.

             Child marriage may also be seen as a strategy to avoid girls becoming pregnant outside marriage. Aisha, 12, had this experience: “I had this rare chance of being in school when education was made free but my dreams were cut short when my parents decided to marry me off to suitor who had paid “Esaiyata” (Maasai dowry ) to “book me for marriage upon my birth, “said   Rosala. “My dreams to become a nurse were shattered when my father, a Turkana decided to marry me off to raise dowry to add to his riches. My family was given 20 cows a goat and a donkey per traditions in my community, said. Rotuno now, 11, of West Pokot of Kenya was withdrawn from school and subjected to female genital mutilation, before marrying   a 62 years old man – several years older than his father. “I was offered to marriage as a fifth wife to enable my family get cattle( pride price ) to pay for brother who was   wanting to marry; the   bride price paid to my family was taken to pay for my pride price . Fatima, now a 16, from North Eastern Province was married off as soon as she was circumcised. “My age mates were already married, my family felt that I also need to marry to preserve our tradition. My brother continued going to school while they forced me to drop out because of lack of fee. They eventually offered me for marriage to an old man as a third wife. My Somali people have a saying that goes, “Gabar ama gunti rageed ama god hakaga jirto” (a girl should either be married or in the grave). The imposition of family honor on a girl’s individuality, in essence robbing the girl of her honor and dignity, undermines the credibility of family honor and instead underscores the presumed protection’s actual aim. Further escalating the pressure for early marriage is the reality that in these cultures women are traditionally valued on the basis of how many children they can produce for their husbands, not by how educated or economically successful they are(FAWE, 2000). The longer a girl stays in school, the less likely she is to be married before the age of 18 and have children during her teenage years. Early marriage and FGM explains why the ratio of girls to boys decreasing as girls goes forward from one grade of schooling to the other.

             Girl-child labor: Child labor is defined in International Labor Organization (ILO) Conventions as the work that children should not be doing because they are too young to work, or – if they are old enough to work – because it is dangerous or otherwise unsuitable for them. Child labor therefore depends on the child’s age, the type and hours of work performed and the conditions under which it is performed, as set out in the ILO Convention. Child labor poses a great threat to education systems, as children are forced to work rather than attend school, or have to divide their time between work and school, thus greatly affecting their ability to learn (Chege, & Sifuna, 2006). Karoti, 12, a Taita Taveta County assist with household chores which include collecting fire wood, fetching water, looking after small herds and administering care for young siblings(Kratli,   2001). A big number of children are used as income earners to the household. They are engaged as domestic servants, commercial activities especially across the border, while others especially those perceived to be more responsible are retained to herd livestock. Others, especially girls, are engaged in petty business in the market selling milk and foodstuff in market stalls. Going to school for the like of her is an opportunity costs that concerns some parents, especially those in poverty because of the time the child could have spend performing household or contributing to family income than attending   school. Mr. Khamis from Kilifi County of kilindi Primary School says that parent’s assign their daughter’s heavy portion of domestic chores compared to their counterparts (boys). This gives the girl child a big task of drudgery of choosing between school work and domestic work, a fact that leads to drop-out or poor performance. Girls, in particular, are deprived systematically of their right to education by family expectation, society’s norms or the mere lack of attention given to their specific needs. Girls and boys spend almost equal amounts of time working, but the boys tend to perform a more supportive role to girls (Colclough, 1994; Dyer, 2001). The working children who are exploited are the most vulnerable in society – including girls, orphans, ethnic and minority groups and street children – all of whom make up the majority of the out-of-school population. Child work, and the need for earnings, is almost certainly a key factor in children not accessing school.

             Migration, security and conflicts: Nomadic life in arid-semi arid involves movement from one region to the other in search of pasture and water for themselves and animals. “We have a problem with the nomads. They move with the children from place to place especially during droughts and mostly do not bring them back when they settle elsewhere, reported Mr. Nur Ibrahim, the District Education officer, Garissa. As communities move and schools become further and further from them – the issue of sending children to school becomes complicated. Many families only permit their daughters to attend all-girls schools close to home and few such schools exist. Others refuse to enroll them in school altogether, while some pull them out of school when they sense that insecurity is acute. In September, for example, Pokot cattle raiders killed 32 people in Samburu Central (Nation,).  Rustling has also affected food production, especially in fertile areas like Ngano on the Kirisia ranges, where bandits lurk in the beautiful landscape. In 2008, insecurity worsened in Ngano, according to the headmaster of a local school, Simon Lenolkulal. “We could hear gunshots, so we were seeking cover on the ground with the children,” he said, recalling a recent incident. “There is a high rate of transition even of school teachers here… Teachers are reluctant to work here because of the insecurity. One week there is peace, the next week we are moving… Every week we enroll new children, and then when there is tension they leave.  Much of the insecurity ASALS is due to cattle-rustling between the Samburu, Pokot, Turkana and Borana communities, according to local residents. The other causes is proliferation of illicit arms, inadequate policing and state security arrangements, diminishing role of traditional governance systems, competition over control and access to natural resources such as pasture and water, land issues, political incitements, ethnocentrism, increasing levels of poverty and idleness amongst the youth . Violence and conflicts infringes upon freedom of movement and greatly limits families’ willingness to send their children to school (Kirk, 2008). Pastoralist families found it difficult to send their children to conventional schools, given their need to move with their herds from place to place in search of water and pasture (Kratli, 2000). Even for those who make it to school, the long walks undermine education. Not surprisingly, teachers report that children who have spent two to five hours walking to school in the morning, often without having had anything to eat, are tired, and their ability to concentrate is impaired (Johannes, 2010).Also, it is often late when children arrive home after such long walks, and they are still required to do chores. But even if they still have the desire and energy to study, they are bombarded with other responsibilities leaving them with little time to study (Dyer, 2001). Getting into school for girls across ASALs Kenya can be an immense struggle. However, the challenge does not stop there. To ensure girls receive the empowering and transforming experience that education can offer, we must also look at girls’ experiences in schools.

             Lack of role models: It is what people see every day that they admire. Women teachers become role models and play an essential role in attracting young women and girls-inspiring them and giving them confidence and strength to do better and achieve more educationally. Getting educated   female teachers are hardly there mostly in arid –semi arid areas of Kenya are virtually impossible (Ombati, 2010, Dunne & Leach, 2005). At one of the primary school in Wajir District, only one female teacher was a member of staff. “When girls see me they think that if they go to school, they can be like me,” They say “she is working, she is standing on her own, she is providing for her family.” – Berita, Isiolo District. When the girls in my village do something they just do it because they don’t know what else to do.” – Sindi of Kajiado. There are no role models that could be regarded as reference. What the nomadic girl child knows is one ladder of growth from daughter to mother and that is all. A woman is basically for procreation. Today she is attractive, a man’s favorite, and tomorrow she is a mother, a man’s property. There is positive correlation between female teachers and female students’ increased enrollment and achievement is generally linked to three primary factors—female teachers’ approachability, provision of professional female role models, and social and cultural acceptability of male/female interaction in the school environment. Particularly for adolescent girl students, having a female teacher who is approachable and sympathetic to the physiological and social changes girls undergo during puberty is important for guiding, counseling, and supporting girl students. Well trained, supported and motivated female teachers can act as effective professional role models for girls. Through their teaching positions they may challenge traditional views and socio-cultural norms round the roles of women in the wider community. The low number of women teachers in these are can be achieved by addressing barriers that impact girl child from enrolling and staying in school until attaining careers. Incentives, such as accommodation, security and financial allowances can be introduced to attract female teachers these areas. Teachers from outside, who do have appropriate education qualifications (though this rarely includes the local language), need strong incentives to work in mobile schools.

             Insensitive curriculum& teaching approaches: Even when girls are enrolled in secondary schools, many do not complete the cycle due to gender-insensitive teaching practices and learning environment they are exposed too. The curriculum and instruction used ASALs schools   tend to be an extension of sedentary people, and does not reflect the local needs of nomadic communities. The content of what children learn is biased to agricultural and urban communities and is not related to the needs of nomadic communities (Abid, 2011). That is why ASALs do poorly in national exams given the fact that the knowledge tested is based on agricultural or middle class urban communities which is culturally irrelevant nomadic children ways of life. Convectional education offered in schools tends to ignore the desirability of the apprenticeship model that is popularly used among the ASALs communities to transfer knowledge. Current schooling practices force nomadic children to separate from their wider social environment, cultural background and families. The schools are static and inflexible following the national timetable (times and calendar   when schools operate) without adapting to the needs of these communities.

             In most schools at ASALs Kenya, the teachers and school administrators do not create and encouraging learning environment. Some of the children interviewed were quick to point out that teachers cane them in schools; schools waste their time as they sit many hours without anything interesting to do, teachers are not friendly and some schools lack food. Children especially girls are assigned domestic chores. For example, in Wajir, girls were assigned to fetch water from water points (traditionally a girl’s job) whenever the need arose. The assignment made them to miss lessons and it was difficult to catch up on schoolwork and other assignments.   As children proceeded to higher schools teachers had expectations about appropriate subjects that girls and boys should pursue. Boys were encouraged to think of careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, while girls were encouraged to pursue subjects like home economics, humanities, and typing that channel them to service industry careers (Gordon 1995; Mayer 2008). I wanted to become a teacher because that is all I knew and my teachers told me that I was easy to enter into teaching colleges because I did not need to struggle a lot. All I need was just an average mark… I never pulled up my socks that are why I am one while these two fellows I schooled with from my village one is a doctor and the other an engineer. It is not that they were too good that me. They had people who encouraged them and mapped good careers from the word go,” Nakolo of Alenje Primary School in Turkana County recalls. Girls in our institution do not do Building and Carpentry courses because teachers and most people think that we cannot do them well,” says 17-year-old Chebit of Baringo Youth Polytechnic. Most girls are enrolled in Food and Nutrition and Fashion and Fabrics careers. Gender Stereotyping is responsible for the relative absence of women in science-based careers because from an earlier age girls are channeled to what the society deems as appropriate career for women and men. “My father said physics and chemistry are difficult and so, being a girl, I thought that I could not excel in those subjects. I was advised me to take arts humanities perceived to be easy to pass,” Kamene Masoud of Lamu County. The perpetuation of traditional images and attitudes towards girls has resulted in is a sustained pattern of occupational disadvantage for girls, a pattern so complex that it seems intractable to those who might initiate changes in the system.

                Strategies of keeping girls in school

             In arid-semi arid regions of Kenya, opportunities to access quality education for many girls’ are limited and in many communities, the support of their education is very low when compared to boys. A large number of girls are out of school, and for those in school, they are at a higher risk of dropping out before completing the education cycle. Strategies of assisting   girls’ enter, remain and complete school is by eliminating poverty rates, FMG and early marriage, and girl child labor that contribute to lack of educational participation or higher drop-out rates among girls.

             Addressing poverty: Making school accessible by reducing the costs to parents has been found to be one of the most effective ways of boosting girl’s enrollment and attendance. As the costs of education are reduced or eliminated, the latent demand for education for children from disadvantaged backgrounds is unleashed. For example, countries that have taken the bold step to eliminate fees saw a dramatic and sudden surge in enrolment as a result: In Uganda in 1996, primary school enrolment grew from 3.4 million to 5.7 million; and in Kenya in 2003, enrolment increased from 5.9 million to 7.2 million (UNESCO, 2005). Provision of bursary schemes operated by non-governmental organization (NGO), Community Based Organizations (CBOs) and individuals are proving effective in keeping needy children in schools. For examples, Constituency Development Fund (CDF) is helping needy students to enroll and attend schools. Programs like Equity Bank which provides bursaries for needy girls are helping in increasing their enrolment and retention. Addressing poverty has included the introduction of school feeding programs (SFPs) in ASALs Kenya affected by abject poverty, drought or persistent food shortages. School feeding program   are interventions that provide food to school children or their family in exchange for enrollment and attendance in school. The programs are targeted social safety nets that provide both educational and health benefits to the most vulnerable children, thereby increasing enrollment rates, reducing and absenteeism (Colclough, 1994). Research shows that providing in-school meals, mid-morning snacks, and take-home rations through school feeding programs can alleviate short-term hunger, increase children’s abilities to concentrate, learn, perform specific tasks, and serves as an incentive for students to go to school to receive food rather than missing out on food by staying home (GoK, 2012. Generally, sending children to a school where meals are served helps to incentivize parents encourage their children to enroll and stay in school. UNICEF has a program in ASALs that helps not only to get meals but also to procure supplies like School-in-a-Box, a pre-packaged kit of materials like exercise books, pencils, erasers and scissors, enough for a teacher and up to 80 students.


             Addressing FGM and child marriage: FGM and child marriage are human rights violations and have a host of negative physical and psychological implications on girls and women. FGM is prohibited under the Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act 2011 and both FGM and child marriage is prohibited under the Children’s Act 2001. In addition, Kenya’s Constitution contains provisions against both FGM and child marriage. The existence of these law have not stopped these practices from happening, especially among certain indigenous and minority groups because lack of effective implementation of the law, prosecution and punishment of perpetrators and awareness-raising and education (Colclough, 1994). Kenya has created Anti-Female Genital Mutilation Board with the mandate of working to protect girls by: enforcing laws against FGM and child marriage, sensitizing parents on the importance of girls’ education and the disadvantages of FGM and early marriage, and supporting girls escaping FGM and child marriage.   Girls and communities that practice female genital mutilation should be provided with information about the practice, and why it needs to be stopped (UNICEF, 2005). The Government needs to work other agencies and local communities to protect and support girls and enforce laws to make sure violations are adequately addressed.


             Girl-friendly sanitation: The school environment needs to be conducive for learning. The lack of clean and separate sanitation facilities in schools discourages many girls from attending school full time and forces some of them to drop out altogether, particularly as they approach adolescence and the onset of menstruation. All children need a sanitary and hygienic learning environment, but the lack of sanitation and hygiene facilities in schools has a stronger negative impact on girls than on boys (Chebii, 2008). At all times, adolescent girls in all schools need friendly sanitation facilities and supplies to support their needs during menstruation. Water, sanitation and hygiene are crucial to getting and keeping girls in school, as they bear the brunt of unhygienic or non-existent latrines (Siringi, 2011). A study in Ghana undertaken by the Said Business School of Oxford noted that post-pubescent girls were missing as many as five days of school per month. With intervention of pads and education on menstrual management and hygiene, the rate of absenteeism was cut by slightly more than half, from about 21% of school days to about 9%. In the village where education only was provided, there was also a reduction in absenteeism, but the effect was delayed. CARE is supplying adolescent girls with sanitary pads to minimize drop-outs during menstruation. Lewa Wildlife Conservancy has partnered with Path to Womanhood, a Kenyan organization to offer training in the manufacture of reusable sanitary towels and reproductive health education to girls in North Eastern Province. UNICEF has a strong presence in school-based water, sanitation and hygiene projects, supporting initiatives in scores of countries, such as supplying hand pumps to primary schools and training teachers in hygiene education.

             Mobile/boarding schools: Mobile schooling is a key strategy or initiative of enabling children especially girls access to educational opportunities among the nomadic communities. Each mobile school consists of a teacher who is part of the pastoral community and travels with a cluster of families to water-points or one grazing area to another where families gather for the purpose getting water and pasture for their animals (Dyer, 2001). The mobile school initiative aims at making education accessible to children who would otherwise find it difficult to access it. The school requires tents, solar lamps, textbooks, a portable blackboard and a pack animal to carry the equipment. Since the program began in 2005, overall school enrolment in the region has increased from 1,000 in 2006 to more than 20,500 in 2012 (GoK, 2012). In these schools, local teachers, who understand English and the local, use various traditional teaching aids in the remote grazing areas to help the children grasp their lessons. “We use wild fruits when teaching them mathematics so that they can understand mathematical terms like minus, plus and numbers,” said Ali Abdi, a mobile school teacher in the remote town of Sarif, in Wajir district. Children in Turkana County mobile schools count cattle and camels to understand mathematics. The schools have been structured fit in with the rhythm of the nomadic communities. For example, teaching in the early hours of the morning to allow children tend animals in midday and classes resume in the evening. The schools are gaining some measurable success because they do not interfere with nomadic lifestyle like conventional schools. Provision of boarding facilities in schools where students have to travel long distances or in cases of nomadic communities in another way of having girls enroll and stay in school.


             Gender responsiveness environment: Reviewing the curriculum, teaching materials and methodologies like those depicting   girls and women only in traditional roles and instead encourage girls to try different lines of work and to participate more broadly in society is important for gender responsiveness. Recruiting and training of more female teachers to encourage girls’ enrollment can help in increase girls’ enrollment in school (Johannes, 2010). Also in some places, particularly where women and girls are more sequestered from males, for reasons of reputation or safety, parents may be more willing to send their daughters to school if they will interact with female teachers rather than male teachers.



             Providing education to especially to the girls child in ASALs communities of Kenya is one of the most challenging and urgent issues currently facing education policy makers, practitioners and other actors within the field. Even with realization that every year a girl is educated is a step towards eliminating poverty, improving   maternal health, reducing   child mortality, improving household nutrition, advancing human development, and stopping the spread of disease; factors that include poverty, cultural biases or traditions that educate boys only or keep girls to work at home, early marriage, FGM, lack of sanitary facilities, hostile schooling environment , lack of female teachers, long distances to travel to school, and harsh terrain and rough weather conditions that jeopardizing girls personal safety are keeping girls out or making them drop out school in ASALs. The initiative that can contribute to participation of more girls in school, include elimination of fees, supply of   sanitation facilities for girls, training of female teachers as role models for girls, and promotion of gender sensitive education can help in encouraging more girls in ASALs being in school. 


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Text by Victor F. O. Ombati and Mokua Ombati:

Ombati Victor Frederick Obwocha has a Ph.D. in social foundations, from the State University of New York at Buffalo, and works as adjunct professor at University of Virginia,  and  also serves as a program director with a social service agency, Maryland US.

Mokua Ombati has a Masters of Arts Degree in Sociology and is a lecturer at Moi University, Eldoret Kenya.