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“Catch-up” centers overcome cultural barriers to educate women

Janet Ekura is an education facilitator at a “catch-up” center in the village of Atan in Isiolo County, Kenya. The catch-up centers are part of an Education for Life initiative designed to empower underprivileged children, and especially girls, in the region.

Underaged girls are often deprived of schooling because of “poverty and outdated cultural practice,” according to Samuel Kiragu, who oversees standards at the education department in Isiolo County. Stories of early marriages, unintended motherhood, and perpetual poverty are common in this region.

Kiragu says that there are likely around 7,000 children in Isiolo who have discontinued their studies or have never even started, the majority of whom are girls. “There are those who wish to be in class but lack access to education. In any case, we want to help the community understand that education is a basic right for the children.”

Catch-up centers in Isiolo, like the one Ekura works at, provide 1,034 girls with basic literacy skills for six to nine months. The literacy and life skills that they are taught are meant to help those aged 14 or under get back into the formal education system. For those 15 years and older, the end goal is to integrate them into informal education or employment.

Patricia Makau, the Education for Life coordinator at Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) Kenya, says that one of the biggest barriers is overcoming deeply entrenched cultural barriers. “We got men here asking, ‘why are you targeting the girls who are our source of wealth? Why invest in girls who will finally get married and leave home?” she says.

Makau says that, through gentle persuasion and community forums, they can get some acceptance from the village patriarchs. They come to understand that even though “most of the underage girls are married, empowering them means they can become assets to their families.”

Ekura has been working with 30 girls aged between 14 and 19 years since January 2021, most of whom are already mothers and have never enrolled in school. When there is a break between lessons, her students check on their children in a nearby homestead where they are cared for by a group of elderly women.

According to Ekura, the girls were quite shy when the centers opened. “You have 19-year-olds who could not even write their names, make a telephone call using a cell phone—since they could not tell one contact from another, or input phone security features. Self-esteem was at an all-time low,” she says. However, with Ekura’s guidance, they are becoming more and more empowered.

“Look at them now,” she continues. “They are handling basic arithmetic and language lessons. They can now speak out. Education is about confidence.”

The program is also slowly winning over some of the prominent elders in Isiolo, like John Eshua, a 70-year-old village elder, who is unapologetic about speaking up for the girls. “We should stop substituting a girl with a cow. Why should 10-year-old girls have babies? I told my son to let [his wife] get some education first before other social engagements. The girls are the light of the community.”

The Education for Life initiative is set to run until 2023.

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