How schools can help protect children in Kenya

Increased access to safer schools is key to improved protection for girls and boys – a review of findings from recent research in Kenya.

Research work undertaken in Kenya in 2011-2013 by the Interagency learning group on community-based child protection mechanisms and systems strengthening has highlighted how children in rural and urban slum sites experience a wide range of harms. The communities identified being out of school, sexual abuse and exploitation, and teenage pregnancy as the main harms to children.

Importantly, the research also identified the crucial protection role which schools do and can play for many of the children from the research sites whilst conversely noting that the schools themselves can also be a source of risk and harm.

The study clearly shows how poverty is one of the main barriers to accessing school and that being out of school further increases the level of vulnerability to risk and harm for children. More positively, the study revealed that in the research communities schools are potentially one of the key elements of a successful broader child protection system, but that school safety for both girls and boys first requires drastic improvement.

There are many out of school children living in the impoverished communities which were targeted by this research, or children who only attend school sporadically. And although it was clear from the research that most children want to be in school and value their education, children experience various barriers to accessing education.

The primary reason children stay away from school is the cost of school “fees” – mainly levies imposed on learners by the schools. Children might also be kept at home to help with family farm work or work as casual labourers. In some cases pre-teen and teenage girls were engaging in various forms of transactional sex instead of attending school in order to obtain necessities such as sanitary pads, or things their parents could not provide, such as phones. To add to this, it is not unusual for transactional sex to result in unplanned pregnancies – an additional reason why girls drop out of school.

Other reasons for not attending school include a lack of support from parents, who do not see the value of education, and peer pressure. Alarmingly, children are also reported staying away from school because of significant levels of violence, sexual abuse and humiliation by the teachers themselves. For example, children told researchers about a number of occasions where teachers had repeatedly called them useless, which resulted in demotivation at school and lowering the child’s self-esteem.

In addition, children who are out of school are more vulnerable to yet further risks and harms. For boys, this often means they can become involved in gambling, “boda boda” (riding motorbikes), alcohol and drug use, as well as stealing food, undertaking heavy work or the sexual exploitation of girls. For girls, being out of school can lead to sexual exploitation, early pregnancy, early marriage and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV and AIDS.

Going forward, there should be a focus on advocating for policy and programmming which takes a holistic and coordinated approach to child protection, addresses different aspects of the child’s environment and acknowledges the protective role of school, whilst promoting the strengthening of the family to keep their children in school. This could be achieved through increased livelihood support, for example the provision of additional social protection grants and other measures, as well addressing the root causes of children not attending school. Finally, efforts to make schools safer for both girls and boys, using a gender aware approach, should also be prioritised.

This research was conducted in 2011-2013 in Mombasa and Kilifi in the Coast area, and Kisii in Nyanza area in Kenya and collected data from nearly 3,500 people, including children. The goal of the research was to better understand how local communities protect children. In addition, the research also wanted to understand more specifically how these local protection mechanisms are linking to formal child protection services and forms of support.

You can listen to a webinar by the researchers or read the presentation here.

You can read a consolidated report of the three research sites and upon which this article is based here.

You can read an interview with one of the researchers, Ken Ondoro, here.