Kenya: Free primary education brings over 1 million into school

By Amy Ahn and Jonathon Silvers

NAIROBI, 22 July 2005 - Twelve-year-old Esther Wamboi lives in Nairobi's Kibera neighbourhood, one of the most impoverished areas in Kenya. She is one of an estimated 1 million Kenyan children who have lost one or both parents to AIDS.

Esther lives with her older sister and brother-in-law in a small shanty they built from discarded tin and wood. She was not able to attend school because they could not afford the fees; her future prospects looked grim. However, two years ago the Kenyan government abolished school fees in primary schools - a lifeline for Esther.

Kenya's education initiative

Kenya's Free Primary Education Policy, which was implemented in January 2003, opened up opportunities for disadvantaged and marginalized girls who had never enrolled in school or had dropped out because they simply could not afford the costs.

When money is scarce, families in many countries are more likely to send boys rather than girls to school. Across Africa more than half of the children currently not enrolled in primary schools are girls.

Uneducated girls face greater risks of HIV/AIDS, sexual exploitation and child trafficking. They are also less likely to have healthy children and less likely to send their children to school. Estimates indicate that there are around 115 million children out of school worldwide, the majority of them girls and millions of them affected by HIV/AIDS.

For many children, particularly girls and those orphaned by HIV/AIDS, the abolition of school fees makes it possible to go to school.

Implementation challenges

It is true that there are significant challenges presented by the elimination of school fees. These arise from the larger number of children in school, and include the possibility of overcrowding in classrooms, shortages of desks and other equipment and supplies, and, most importantly, a dearth of trained teachers.

UNICEF and partners working in Kenya have taken a hands-on approach to help meet these challenges by providing funding and materials for students throughout the country, and arranging intensive training programs for teachers in key communities. The Ayany Primary School, where Esther is now a student, was an early beneficiary of this support.

Despite the elimination of primary school fees in Kenya, many children still cannot afford to go, because of associated costs such as transportation and uniforms. In order to achieve universal primary education - one of the UN Millennium Development Goals - ways must be found to overcome these impediments.

Hope to continue

"Our challenge now is to keep children in school," says UNICEF Representative in Kenya Nicholas Alipui. "We have to make sure that they don't drop out.

"There is a need to ensure that communities and parents themselves continue to feel some level of responsibility for educating their children."

Enrolment at the Ayany School surged after the Kenyan government enacted the free basic education policy. Nationwide, the abolition of school fees drew over 1 million additional Kenyan children like Esther to classrooms - many for the first time.

"I look forward to finishing primary school, because I want to work with computers," says Esther. "I will go on with education as long as I can, so long as it is free. It has given me hope to continue."