Breaking barriers to female education

Project Background: Female Education

St Elizabeth Bumia Girls’ Secondary School, in Mumias District in Kenya’s Kakamega county, was a first year EPA school in 2015. The headteacher, Azibeta Odongo, had an enthusiasm for girls’ education. This drove the school’s expansion from a single class of 22 girls learning under a mango tree in 2002, to a thriving school of 256 girls when PWs arrived. Although the school has grown successfully, gender issues were still limiting female students’ educational prospects. This was particularly apparent when it came to post-secondary opportunities and attending school regularly. The summer work helped instigate positive changes that aimed to resolve these issues.

In 2014, 14 girls from St Elizabeth Bumia gained scores in their final secondary exams (KCSEs) that allowed them to secure university places. However, only 6 girls actually went. This was due to barriers linked to poverty and (according to Azibeta and alumni) general reluctance to fund girls’ further education. PWs in other schools had previously attempted to tackle this issue.  We felt that due to the school’s largely female senior management and our strong PW team, we would work to gradually challenge the perceptions of girls’ education. We hoped that this could be reinforced by future Project Workers and other initiatives, such as careers talks including parents too.


The Project

Absenteeism was a key issue at the school. Discussions with staff and students highlighted that it was closely related to menstruation. The school had attempted to resolve this issue by providing girls with the option to buy disposable sanitary towels from the school’s caretaker. However, at 5 shillings a piece on top of the associated social taboo, girls were reluctant to buy towels from the male caretaker. Instead, 80% of girls liked the idea of reusable sanitary pads. We showed the female staff how to make the towels and the school’s matron Violet became a particularly strong advocate of the scheme. Violet went on to help PWs teach girls in lessons and in her own free time. These lessons often contained 40 girls due to the enthusiasm for the scheme. She and the school’s deputy were keen to design a financially sustainable model to finance the purchase of new materials in the future. They also helped to design and position a washing and drying area for the pads so that the 147 girls taking part in the scheme could safely use them. Violet also suggested teaching other women from the community about the towels. So, we ran community sessions to ensure  that news about the towels would spread.

In terms improving perceptions of the value of girls’ education, only time will tell as to whether this scheme helped to reduce absenteeism rates and help girls achieve better in school. The direct success of the project will be difficult to immediately quantify. For example, improvements in attendance could be linked to other schemes like the health day run by local health workers. Still, we hoped that the schemes would continue in the future as we had gained significant community-backing for the sanitary towel project. This was a huge success considering something as personal and private as menstruation that could have been rejected by girls’ families and relatives.

Written by Victoria Hayman, Project Worker 2015.