Barriers to enjoying the right to education in Mathare informal settlement

By May Joy Namulembwa

On Tuesday, October 23, 2018, EACHRights together with representatives from the Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (GIESCR) and the Right to Education Initiative (RTE) went for a community visit to Mathare North Primary school; a public school with approximately 1300 pupils and 30 teachers.

According to Mrs Catherine Kariuki, the deputy headteacher, the institution has had a history of low enrolment rate because many children do not attend school in that area. However, with the help of the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) under the Operation Come-To-School programme, the number of out of school children within the community has reduced drastically. Through the programme, children who were in school acted as ambassadors and convinced the ones out of school to enrol with the promise of incentives like free lunch, books, pens and bags; some of which were donated by Unicef.

A group of pupils at the corridors of Mathare North Primary School. One of them is carrying a bag donated by Unicef. PHOTO: May Joy Namulembwa

Barriers to accessing education in Mathare

1.      Poverty

A big number of the community in Mathare North slum live in extreme poverty.  Mrs Kariuki revealed how some parents sell their children’s textbooks in order to satisfy their desire for drinking and others to buy food. In addition, many pupils are orphans and could not even afford basic items required to sit for the Kenya Certificate of Primary Examinations (KCPE) like geometrical sets. They, therefore, get donations from well-wishers.

EACHRights donating geometrical sets to be used by this year’s KCPE candidates and those in future. PHOTO: May Joy Namulembwa

2.      Insecurity

Mrs Kariuki attested to the high level of insecurity in the area which has been a threat to pupils attending the school; This was before the perimeter wall was built with sponsorship from Constitutional Development Fund (CDF). Although the perimeter wall is not yet complete, it has greatly prevented outsiders (drunkards, thieves, idlers, etc) from trespassing the school’s vicinity; posing a threat to girls and boys.

Pupils play next to the perimeter wall built by CDF. PHOTO: May Joy Namulembwa

3.      Gender challenges

In the past, Mathare North Primary School has also had a challenge with retaining girls to school, especially when they hit puberty. Various interventions have been put in place to address this challenge: This includes the running of “Rights of Children” (ROC) club; an association that was set up by an organization called Pendekezo Letu after the abolishment of corporal punishment in schools. Through the club, both girls and boys are informed about their rights and chiefly, their right to education, their right to be in school. Other interventions include providing girls with sanitary towels and panties through the collaborative efforts of county government, NGOs and churches. “Girls are also taught life skills,” said Mrs Kariuki. To keep the boys from feeling left out, Mrs Kariuki calls upon well-wishers to donate boxers for boys because many do not wear anything beneath their school shorts.

Currently, the number of enrolled girls is higher than that of boys who tend to fall victim to child labour. Many children within the settlement are orphans some live with their elderly grandparents and are therefore forced to undertake casual jobs for their daily survival. Other children do “mjengo” (casual work at a construction site), while others sell scrap metals or water. On one occasion, a class 7 pupil was found running a bodaboda (motorbike) business to support his family.

The Deputy headteacher stated that with KCPE recently completed, there would be many children at home, a lion’s share of whom would be working throughout the holiday to fend for themselves.

4.      Children closing before the date

Now that children have closed for the third term, Mrs Kariuki reveals that there are children who close the school before the official date. They experience this challenge of children being taken by their parents to their rural homes due to fear of fare hiking as the festive season approaches. Parents in the area dread that if their children remain until the end of the term, they will be forced to pay a lot of money to transport them to their rural homes. Therefore, they take them immediately after they finish the end term examination before schools close for the holiday season. Some parents even take their children before they sit for the final term exams.

5.      Additional fees/ levies

Article 53 (1) (b) of the Kenyan constitution states that every child has a right to free and compulsory basic education. However, public schools in marginalized areas like Mathare often state that they are forced to charge fees for various reasons. Most recently, the school has requested parents to step in, in order to take over from where the school feeding programme left off. Initially, UN’s agency, World Food Programme (WFP) provided hot lunches for pupils under the Home Grown School Meals Programme (HGSMP). WFP halted the HGSMP at the end of 2018’s second term, after providing food to arid and semi-arid areas, and urban informal settlements for over 30 years.

In May 2017 during a consultation meeting with WFP and the African Union, Dr Fred Matiang’i the then Education Cabinet Secretary stated, “we want to tell the World Food Programme to go and feed others. We want to give meaning to independence.” Similarly, the WFP Deputy Country Director Paul Turnbull in May 2017 said that the feeding programme would be gradually handed over to the government of Kenya and that they (WFP) would then completely disaffiliate itself from the programme. However, the government of Kenya has still not taken over the programme since these pronouncements were made. It also appears that no significant plans have been made or publicized as to how the programme would be rolled out by the Ministry of Education (MoE). This has left schools in informal settlements in an untenable situation.

Children line up to be served ugali and beans for lunch. PHOTO: May Joy Namulembwa

Schools are now at a crossroads and have been forced to begin charging pupils for lunch. This is in communities where the WFP feeding programme acted as a prime incentive for enrolment in schools. Most children in low-income settlements come from very poor socio-economic backgrounds, and their parents are unlikely to afford this fee. Mrs Kariuki’s fear now is losing children who cannot afford to pay lunch.  She also admits that there are pupils at their school who rely on school lunch as their main meal, often the only one they will consume in an entire day. Some children go as far as to hide food in order to take it home to feed their parents and siblings. The school has since identified the neediest pupils and when there are remnants of the day’s cooked lunch, they call them to pack for carrying home.”What we normally do is we identify them and in case there is any food remaining, they are given to take home,” asserted Mrs Kariuki.

Mrs Kariuki feels lucky: her pupils were able to continue eating free lunch for the whole of the third term due to reserves of uncooked food saved over from previous terms. But their luck is likely to run out soon.

The withdrawal of the feeding programme, therefore, has significant implications, re-establishing barriers to accessing education for many.  Mrs Kariuki’s hope for the children in her school and those affected by the halting of the feeding programme is that that the government do something before children from marginalized areas like Mathare North go back to the street. In the meantime, next year when schools open, the school management has requested parents/guardians to brace themselves for paying a fee that shall cater to their children’s meal from February onwards. January shall be the last month for their pupils to enjoy WFP’s reserves from previous terms.

A December 2016 report by Unicef titled “Out of School Children situation in Kenya” revealed that 6 out of 10 children who are not attending school come from poor families; most of them live in marginalized areas like informal settlements and arid and semi-arid areas. As of then, 852,000 children between the ages of 6 and 17 years were not accessing basic education. This clearly shows that the status of education in Kenya is a threat to achieving SDG 4 by 2030. The government of Kenya through the Ministry of Education ought to look into the issues faced by children from vulnerable backgrounds and create a fair process that ensures no child is blocked from enjoying their right.

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