Schools provide a protective space for children in drought-affected Garissa
Helping keep children in school during the drought
As the UNICEF vehicle approached Garissa County, Kenya, we could see an endless landscape filled with dying bushes and shrubs. There was not a drop of water, even though it should be raining in November. Along the tarmac road, young girls and boys were trying to catch the attention of the drivers, in the hope of getting some water or empty plastic bottles. These girls and boys are among the thousands of children who are not attending schools in the drought-affected areas of Kenya.
Consecutive years of below-average rainfall in Garissa County and the rest of Northern Kenya has deeply impacted the pastoralist communities who live there. This is one of the worst climate emergencies in the last 40 years. The Education Working Group, chaired by the Kenyan Government, and supported by UNICEF, estimates that 690,000 school-aged children are at risk of dropping out of school due to the drought.
There are many reasons for these drop outs: boys join their parents to search for grazing land for livestock, parents cannot afford education costs, girls help the families with homework and childcare of younger siblings, children look for jobs - often hard labor - to complement their family’s income and others. According to the Ministry of Education, the situation is worse for girls. Few will complete primary education, and even fewer secondary.
Modika Primary School in Garissa is an exception to this trend of increasing dropouts. “Today, there are 457 children enrolled in this school, out of which 220 are girls,” explained headteacher Ali Dika Abdala. “Five years back, the overall number stood at only 100 children. The school staff have worked hard to support the return of the children. The teachers followed up with parents individually, supported the mothers to find other solutions for childcare and raised awareness on the benefits to invest in girls’ education.”
UNICEF upgraded the school's infrastructure and regularly provides education supplies, including school bags and hygiene items for students.
Mr Abdala further explained that the drought has forced families to separate. Some parents take their younger children out of school and leave Garissa in search of better pastures, while their adolescent daughters stay behind. At this time, 73 adolescent girl students at Modika School are separated from their immediate families and living with extended families. These arrangements can come with risks to the safety and well-being of girls.
“In many primary schools in Garissa, the gender parity between girls and boys is similar,” Mr Abdala continued. “The situation changes when the girls reach 13-14 years old. As parents struggle to feed their children and their dying livestock, they often adopt negative coping strategies to the detriment of their children. One of them is to marry off their adolescent daughters so that the family can receive a dowry and have one less person to feed.”
Interviews with pastoral community members suggest that during the drought, dowries for adolescent girls increased, as the piece of cattle decreased.
Mr Abdala concluded that adolescent girls need support to return to and remain in school. Unless the Government, donors and partners invest in schools and education, many girls will tragically become adolescent brides.
By Narine Aslanyan, Emergency Specialist, Gender