School is a girl’s escape to freedom, but at what price?

A child shouldn’t have to sacrifice her body, safety and boundaries for tuition

By James E. Copple

Kariobangi North Girls Secondary School is an oasis in the midst of one of Nairobi’s worst slums, but the cost of an education, hope and a future can be criminal. We spent the morning at the Kariobangi North, and the stories of how these girls arrived there are both inspiring and horrific.

Gender-violence, rape and abuse are part of the narrative in the lives of young women here. School is an escape from immediate threat and hope for long-term liberation through economic and social empowerment. In Kenya, a woman with an education is less likely to experience gender-violence or abuse.  An inscription on the entrance to the school reads: “Getting a girl child to school changes a nation.” Indeed, educating girls changes a nation, a community, a home. Most of all, school gives girls a dignity that is lost in cultural and historical oppression.

Today, the principal told us stories of two girls recently held as sexual hostages in order to secure their school fees.  A 15-year-old living with her sister and her sister’s husband reported to the principal that the husband was making sexual advances and threatened to withdraw his support if she didn’t surrender. For this student, it meant the loss of tuition. A second girl, living with her father, pushed back at his sexual advances and reported the acts to her mother. Her response was to advise her daughter to “think about pleasing him” if she wanted her father to pay for school. The girl dropped out and returned to her mother’s house.

Enrollment is up at Kariobangi: 460 students vs 390 three months ago. The principal said there is room for about 30 more girls, but school fees are the single biggest obstacle to enrollment. I have said this in a thousand places and more than a thousand times: The scale of intervention is so small, but the benefit has enormous reach. I spend $250 a month on books, movies, coffee and other not-so-essential items. I never really recorded my disposable income, but if I just simplified a little, I could more than cover the schools fees of two – maybe even five – of these young women.

As I looked at their faces this morning, they all shouted, “Good morning, Dr. Copple!” They remembered me from my last visit, and they know I raised money for their computer teacher. They were glad to see me and, perhaps, felt trust and acceptance in this bearded elder. For a moment, maybe they saw a man who didn’t threaten them. They were eager to tell me their choir had been selected to represent the area in a national competition and invited me back for the September concert.

As I listened to their words of appreciation, I couldn’t help but wonder what transactions they had to negotiate in order to be here. What are the environments that tolerate sexual abuse of children for the price of school fees?  These young women will push through. You can see it in their resilient faces; there is a strength in their smiles. Help me take violation, fear and oppression out of the cost of an education. For $250, you can change one girl; many lives; a nation.

You can go to www.servantforge.org to make a donation to the Kariobangi School Fees Project.

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