Empowering Female Students

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Hayden Banks and Bella Middleton

We have relished the opportunities available to empower female students in our role as PWs. Uniquely assigned to an all-girls school, we have been made even more aware of the issues associated with gender inequality in East Africa than our peers at mixed schools. Indeed early on we observed high levels of absenteeism and after speaking to the principal (herself a great source of inspiration for the girls), it was revealed that parents did not regard their girl’s education as particularly important and thus fees are rarely paid. Whilst it is ofcourse an issue that cannot be solved overnight, our projects have been designed to begin to tackle some of the issues that impede the progress of women in these societies from an early age.

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Walking into the offices at St. Elizabeth Bumia you could be greeted by one of many inspirational women working at the school. During our time there we have witnessed Azibeta, the principal, tirelessly chasing up apathetic parents and guardians to attempt to find solutions to the issue of fee payments. The fees remain too high – that is undeniable. Yet she provides parents a release by offering payment of fees in kind, whereby parents can provide the school with whatever they have at their dispense; be it maize, sugar, firewood or even printer paper. Azibeta is clearly committed to her girls and we in turn have been committed to her school.

Recognising the importance of working with parents, we held a ‘Women’s Day’, which was a great opportunity for us and the girls to present the House System to the parents. This was something we had worked on from early on, as we recognised that whilst the school had admirable intentions to deliver ‘pride in excellence’, its motto, in practice this was not always achieved. We spoke to many girls and they said that the frequent use of caning as the primary method of punishment troubled them greatly, and as there was no formal discipline code it meant that they could not clearly understand the consequences of misbehaving. So whilst the House System will hopefully help to improve this situation, with points awarded and retracted for specific actions, we hope also that it will create a greater community feel at the school and establish leadership roles and teamwork which will be beneficial to the girls in the future.

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In preparation for the launch of the new system we gathered all the girls together and invited them to write down their female role models. It was a memorable afternoon and very rewarding to see them all together engaged with what we were saying and inspired by our plans for their school. On this day we were also able to tailor our ‘Women’s Day’ specifically to the girl’s needs, inviting guest speakers based on the career aspirations they had identified. The girls seemed to particularly enjoy the talk given by a local radio journalist, with many setting their sights to work in television, newspaper and film, alongside others who aimed to be nurses, engineers or teachers.

Whilst it is not possible to change attitudes overnight, we hope that parents went away from the day with a greater sense of pride in their girls and recognition of the importance of their education. The University student who spoke certainly seemed to instil this in the girls themselves. She passionately addressed the importance of prioritising one’s studies over relationships at this crucial stage in the girls’ education, and it was pleasing to see them avidly making notes whilst she was speaking. We have reconciled the perhaps short-term impact of a few guest speakers with the implementation of a House System tailored to the ethos of the school. This should help all parties recognise the importance of female education, and most importantly motivate the girls themselves to aim higher. Already, the school community seems energised by our ideas, commenting positively on the newly constructed ‘points board’ displayed on one of the walls. We can only hope that such enthusiasm continues beyond the bounds of the classroom when the girls return home to their parents each day.

Nicole is Communications and Information Manager on the Management Committee, and will be a coordinator for the second half of the project in Kenya during the project this summer