How Loya Primary School became a safe haven for girls

Via UN Africa Renewal http://ow.ly/T8aM50J3xyM

Some of the girls who board in the school display their beddings.

Loya Primary School is situated more than 700 kilometres away from Kenya’s capital Nairobi in the north-western part of the country. The school rests in the remotest part of Loima sub-County, some 120 kilometres from Turkana’s capital Lodwar. It is nestled between Nachukul ranges at the Kenya-Uganda border and Lorengipi mountain ranges at the Turkana-West Pokot border.

Driving from Lodwar town, one will notice the change in temperatures, from the blistering sun rays of Lodwar to the pleasant clement weather of Loya. Today the temperatures at Loya stand at 34°C, at night the temperatures drop to about 24°C.

Before the construction of Kitale-Lodwar highway in 1984, Loya was a gateway to Turkana from Kitale. Today, Loya, a Turkana word for “a stream of water,” is living up to its name by quenching the education thirst and providing a safe haven for girls.

It is 9:00 am on a Friday at Loya Primary School. Sunlight shines through the meshed windows of the school’s three classrooms. Paska Natem, a16-year-old student, sits quietly reading her science notes. She is a class eight pupil who will be sitting for national exams at the end of this year.

Natem is a mother of three-year-old Gilbert, who was born 2018. If the walls of this tiny classroom she now calls home could speak, they would tell of the pain and the resilience of this young mother. Her joyful smile hides the pain she has endured. In 2018, Natem was forcefully married off to an elderly man when she was in class seven.

“I was forced out of school and married off to a man I did not know. It hurt me so much, but I had no choice. Later that year, I gave birth to my baby boy. I loved school so much that I knew I had to go back. In 2020, I ran away and came to my teacher and told him that I wanted to return to school. He received me warmly,” she said.

Today, Natem is the top pupil in her class. She loves mathematics and social studies. She and her son live at the school year-round, which protects her from her husband, who she says has been looking for them since she escaped from him. Her son attends the school’s pre-primary programme, which enables Natem to concentrate on her studies.

“I would like to become the president of Kenya one day, so that I can sign laws and direct that child brides like me are protected from men who prey on them, quashing their dreams. I hope that I get enough support and the funding needed to continue my studies and achieve my dreams,” said Natem.

Delphine Sharon, a17-year-old, is another student who has found a home at Loya Primary School. She also is a bright pupil who loves mathematics, science, and Kiswahili subjects. Like Natem, she is a mother of a one child. Also forcefully impregnated in 2018, Sharon managed to return to school in 2020. Pasca Natem, a class 8 pupil who dreams of becoming the president of the Republic of Kenya to protect girls against child marriage. Loya Primary School has only three classrooms for the 265 students it serves across eight grade levels. During the day, students from two different grades must share a single classroom. Pupils in one grade face the front of the room, students in another grade face the back. At lunch time, the classrooms become a dining hall. In the evenings, they are transformed into a dormitory for the girls.

“We sleep on mats in the evening with no blankets, mattresses, or bed sheets. We are focused on the goal of getting an education to help our children and our society in future. I wish to become a doctor one day so I can treat the poor for free, because accessing proper healthcare is very expensive,” said Sharon.

Loya Primary School head teacher Buluma Mahelo said the school was originally conceived of as a day school. The staff decided, however, to add the “local boarding” feature as a way to keep the girls in school and safe. He explained that the school purchased mats at 100 Kenyan shillings ($1) each for the girls to sleep on. The school employs a security guard to protect the girls at night and during the holidays. Sharon and Natem, are among about 10 girls who stay at the school for protection against child marriage.

Sharon, Natem and a third student, Abigael Nelima, have already secured admission to high schools. However, they will need scholarships for their dream to become a reality. “The transition rate [to high school] for girls has been dropping because of child marriages, teenage pregnancies, dysfunctional families, and poverty,” said Buluma, “The girls at age 12 are forced out of school and married off despite the fact that they are very bright children who could bring change to the society. This motivated us to create our local boarding school for the girls to protect and keep them while they are in school.

“In 2021, we had a programme dubbed, ‘young mother back to school’ where we went to the villages and brought back the young mothers who had dropped out to school. However, we could not afford to provide for all of them and their children, thus a majority dropped out leaving only three Natem, Sharon and Abigael in school,” said Buluma. Despite all these challenges, the school managed to send two students to prestigious national schools in 2019 and 2020. In 2021, three pupils have got admissions to national schools and several to county-level schools. All the 21 candidates have secured admissions to secondary schools.”

“We only have three classrooms, one set of latrines for the girls, a water source, and some food. We would appreciate a well-wisher to support construction of four more classrooms, offices, latrines, a kitchen, a store, dormitories for boys and girls, and teachers’ houses,” said the head teacher.

Other services Loya offers to encourage girls to stay in school include: guidance and counselling, mentorship, creating a child-friendly environment, provision of basic necessities, and instructional materials and parental sensitisation on the importance of education for girls.

Currently, Frontiers Children Development Programme, a national non-governmental organisation (NGO) and a local partner of ChildFund Kenya, supports the school. The organisation’s mandate is to promote the care, well-being, and protection of children. It encourages community members to take charge of their own destiny by promoting local initiatives. Delphine Sharon, a class 8 young mother, with a dream of becoming a doctor to treat the poor who cannot access proper health care. The NGO, which supports community involvement, is promoting local initiatives. One example is the establishment of a kitchen garden for the school where sweet potatoes are planted. The pupils cook and eat the potatoes. They also sell them in the nearby market, using the money they earn to buy other essentials, such as cooking oil, sanitary towels, and soap. They have planted kale, tomatoes, spinach, and cow peas as well - healthy vegetables the pupils eat. Growing and preparing them for lunches and dinners encourages children to come to school, where they know they will get a tasty meal.

“The kitchen garden at Loya has had a very positive impact on the school,” said Maurice Lokwaliwa, programme, and sponsorship coordinator at Frontiers Children Development Programme. “The orange-fleshed sweet potatoes are one of the richest natural sources of beta-carotene, which is converted to vitamin A, preventing night blindness. It also has components that help prevent malnutrition and stunted growth. This ensures that pupils get the nutrition they require.”

Lokwaliwa added that there are plans to increase the amount of water pumped to the school, but that this has stalled due to budget constraints. “We were hoping to expand the water project and other projects to Loya Primary School, but we do not have enough funds. We had about Sh. 800,000 ($8,000) per project but need about Sh. 3 million ($30,000) to complete the project, which will support more people,” said Lokwaliwa. With a budget of Sh. 28 million ($280,000) for three years, the NGO is implementing projects in four Early Childhood Development Educational centres (ECDEs) and 13 farmer groups.

The Children’s Act 2001 of Kenya outlawed child marriage. In places like Loya in Turkana, sadly, it is practiced and considered a cultural norm. According to a report by the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) titled, “Family Assets Understanding and Addressing Child Marriage in Turkana,” published in 2016, child marriage cuts across social boundaries in Turkana, from the rich and powerful attached to tradition to the poor and desperate looking to escape poverty.

A survey supported by UNICEF in 2014 showed that 32 per cent of Turkana women between the ages of 20 and 49 were married before they reached the age of 18; 14 per cent of 15-19-year-olds were married; and almost 10 per cent of girls were married before they were 15 years old. The same survey found that 102 in every 1000 women in Turkana had given birth by age 19.

In Kenya, as per UNICEF 2017, child marriage prevalence stands at 23 per cent for girls below the age of 18 years and 4 per cent for girls under 15 years. This means that the number of child brides in Kenya is 527,000, making it the 20th highest in the world.

In July 2020, President Uhuru Kenyatta established a taskforce to investigate reports of violence against women and girls, including child marriages. Mr. Kenyatta has also said that his government is committed, through the Sustainable Development Goals, to ending child marriage by 2030.