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Literacy Programmes Bridging The Gender Gap

By Juma Kwayera, All Africa News Agency, 28 January 2000

Nairobi - It needed some kind of tragedy to soften the Samburu male conservatives who for ages stifled the voice of women in their communities.

Not any more, in this predominantly nomadic-pastoralist northern Kenya frontier district. In Sereo-lipi division, women have teamed up to advance the cause girl-child education in a cultural environment in which women's role is restricted to home making and childbearing.

Bereft of livestock, the pastoralists' economic mainstay through freak climatic swings which claimed large numbers of the stocks, it took the ingenuity of the local women to save their families from disaster.

Jabana Lishudugule, a member of the Sereo-lipi Women's Group, says the deaths of livestock occasioned by the El Nino and La Nina weather phenomena of the past two years was the turning point in the social role of women.

"It was followed by prolonged months of hunger. Then it dawned on us that time had come for us to abandon the hearths and venture outdoors to rescue our families from imminent hunger," she says.

In the remote reaches of Sereo-lipi, the women started pooling resources for investment in an education project for girls and children orphaned by weather vagaries. This project involves livestock buying and selling, boarding cottages, restaurants that serve traditional delicacies." Some 30 percent of our earnings is used to pay school levies for orphans and the girl-child education," she says.

Situated along the main highway to Kenya's northern neighbours, Sereo-lipi is a transit-point for travellers enroute to northern Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia and the Sudan. The group took advantage of the security post at Sereo-lipi and built manyattas or bandas (kraals or traditional cottages) where travellers can lodge while on transit.

"Out of this business, we earn and bank as much as KShs 10,000 ( about US$ 143) per month. However there are times our returns are low, especially when shiftas (bandits) strike," says Lishudugule. In spite of this, security around their business location is a boon that brings their customers, even if it takes long, she says.

Though the business has stirred the interest of the local population in investing non-livestock ventures, there is still vast potential that has to tapped in this region that is frequented by eco-tourists, says the chief of the division George Lemerketo. Located 165 kilometres south of Marsabit township and 45 kilometres from Isiolo in the north, Lemerketo says Sereo-lipi is an important transit point in a jungle that is ruled by wild animals and bandits.

Nonetheless, the women's groups have provided an insight into the economic potential of the region that is traditionally associated with herding." The only war we are yet to win in order to retain girls in education is early pregnancies and forced marriages," says the chief, the grassroots government administrator.

According to the chief, the impact of the women's efforts is reflected in the girl-child's level of enrolment, participation and retention in education. "Save for early pregnancies and forced marriages, the number of girls completing primary school has risen compared to two years ago," he said recently

Although there are more girls attending Sereo-lipi Primary School that two years ago, conservative pastoralists still argue that "too much education for the girl turns her into a prostitute or delays her from getting married," says Elijah Otiende, Action-Aid Kenya's Samburu District Community Mobiliser.

Otiende says training women in elementary book keeping and accounting has transformed the women's "narrow" world view. "It has improved the women's ability to manage their own affairs".

Women have been encouraged to participate in decision making process education and other spheres of life. "They are the motor and engine behind the revolution in girls education because they are included in school committees," says Otiende, the co-ordinator of the this Action-Aid Kenya's grassroots capacity building project that runs up to the year 2002.

Otiende adds that the 30 percent collection the women remit to school helps to purchase basic equipment in school as well as food requirements. Availability of food in this school has improved retention to over 200 pupils. Through provision of food incentives for lower primary pupils and pre-school groups, Otiende adds, the long term objective is to pass on elementary education to the residents. This could be accomplished through self-sustaining educational projects.

"The changing attitude to education is quite an accomplishment in Sereo-lipi. Parents in other parts of the district still regard education as a punishment and children are their helpers. The success being recorded at Sereo-lipi will help education planners to convince locals still opposed to education to take a cue from them," says the district education officer, Joseph arap Cherge.

He noted that the sparsely populated district has 36,000 children who are out of school owing to cultural, social and environmental reason. "However, danger lurks in food-for-education incentive. School is becoming synonymous with succour and so parents are surrendering their role to schools. They want us to provide food for them to release children to school," regrets Cherge.

Cherge says the Sereo-lipi project could help reverse the thinking in the district and make food production and education a community or family challenge.

Lishudugule says that traditionally among Samburu, Turkana and Somali who consitute the residents of this district, women are home-makers and their domain is the house.

However, through sensitisation and social evolution, this perception is shifting and women are progressively breaking loose from this domestic cocoon to venture outdoors. "We had to do this in order to provide food to our families," she says of the emerging development.

In her opinion, the presence of the project has empowered local women by providing opportunities to work alongside their men. "We are not just sex tools.

While we provide money to buy animals, food, and the men help in driving to the market and transporting back the food we buy," Lishudugule observes of the interdependence that has evolved from interacting with their men-folk while working together.

The livestock project that started only two years ago with funding from Action Aid Kenya, a non-governmental organisation NGO, is perceived as a quasar that has pulled men away from the conservative and mean perception and thus appreciate women as partners, says George Leparkiras, a schools inspector in Sereo-lipi.

The impact of the women's group project, although long in being felt, has encouraged men and the youth too to start complementary groups. Leparkiras, says that the delicate gender balance needs to be nurtured in order to bring out the best in women, who before the latest developments were subdued by cultural inhibitions.

A few years ago, he says, this would have been unthinkable owing to the deeply seated male chauvinism. But women working alongside men is helping reverse this attitude. "Women are now participating in decision-making, a thing that was unheard of when men held sway in the affairs of the society," says the education officer.

* We carried a related story - on early cultural betrothals among the Samburu community - under Features section on Bulletin 47/99 of November 29,1999 - Editor

Publication date: January 31, 2000

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