How safe are our daughters in boarding schools?

Parents, guardians, alumnis and members of the civil society demonstrate in solidarity outside Moi Girls School, Nairobi calling for thorough investigations, arrests of culprits and an end to sexual abuse in schools. June 4, 2018. [Jonah Onyango, Standard]

The rape of a student at Moi Girls’ High School, Nairobi, should not just be regarded as a crime, but a wake-up call to carry out an audit on safety of learners in schools.

The Moi Girls’ incident is not an isolated case as in recent days following the attack, there have been reports of rape or attempted rape of girls in various schools across the country. In the past, there had been cases of schoolgirls being subjected to violence. In mind is the ugly incident in 1991, when 19 girls were killed and 71 others raped by their male counterparts at St Kizito Mixed Secondary School in Meru.

Unfortunately, the Ministry of Education and the government seemed to have learned nothing from these incidents. After the St Kizito attack, so much was talked about how to protect girls in schools. Recommendations were made, including having headteachers and their deputies live within the compounds of all boarding schools. It was also recommended that schools are fenced and have watchmen.

Food kiosks

There was much talk then on providing security to students in boarding schools, whether boys or girls. On several occasions, President Daniel Moi ordered food kiosks and other business structures next to schools to be demolished. But this was never enforced. In this regard, the kiosks that Nairobi County officials bulldozed with gusto a day after the rape incident at Moi Girls’ should not have been there in the first place, if the government had been keen on enforcing its rules. 

Although Moi Girls’ is a national school, before those kiosks were removed, it more or less looked like an extension of the Kibera slum. Even without thinking about the insecurity posed by such kiosks, most of them were unhygienic food stalls that could be of health risk to students. Amid efforts to address security issues, the time has come for Kenyans to think of schools as institutions that perform specific duties, rather than extensions of where they are located.

A school, whether boarding or day, should be safe for students and teachers. According to the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), no student, male or female, should have to undergo violence of any kind, or risk their lives to get an education in any country. “Governments are encouraged to ensure schools are the places where children feel free and protected,” says UNESCO.

Second home

But this ideal form of a school is escaping Kenyans, not because they cannot have it but because those who are expected to nurture it are either not ready for it or simply do not care. In reality, a boarding school is more or less a second home to students who spend more time there in a year than they do at home. It is for this reason that teachers who are posted there should feel duty bound to ensure security for students.

The tradition of boarding schools in Kenya was developed by Christian missionaries in the early 20th century as a way of providing a second home to young converts running away from their homes to avoid violence from custodians of traditional beliefs. But thereafter, such boarding schools became centres of academic excellence and pride of students who were admitted there.

It is from this background that most people were horrified to hear that a student was attacked in a national boarding school. Whereas such incidents might have occurred elsewhere, it is the first time such an attack is being reported in a national boarding school and in Nairobi. The school is said to have several watchmen, guard dogs and closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras. Although the police investigations are expected to reveal the status of security in the school at the time of the attack, the assault is already a blot on the school board of governors that has already been dissolved.

This incident will also place a sharp focus not just on performance of boards of governors and other school committees but on the entire education policy in relation to security, enrollment, infrastructure, supervision, staffing, appointment of principals and location of big schools. In this regard, the Ministry of Education will have to consider who determines the actual planning of dormitories, classrooms and other school buildings.

With all due respect, considering a Kenyan boarding school as a community entity, dormitories are more or less like the slums in an urban environment. In most instances, dormitories are built in close proximity, making security lights dim in some areas, while inside, rooms are stacked with beds that there is almost no empty space between the double-deckers. Criminals could hide easily in such surroundings and surprise the students.

But the sad issue is that unlike the boys, every day girls in Sub-Saharan Africa face barriers to education, usually caused by negative cultural norms and violence. Subsequently, the recent attack at Moi Girls is a grave reminder that there is need to ensure girls are completely safe in schools. According to Dr Benta Abuya, a senior researcher at the Nairobi-based African Population and Health Research Centre, sexual harassment and violence is rampant in mixed day secondary schools in urban slums.

Gender discrimination

Although incidents of sexual harassment and violence are not regularly reported, Abuya says these are some of the major obstacles that girls encounter both in and out of school. Whereas the male students are the major culprits, some teachers are also involved, says Abuya. In a briefing paper, Abuya says schoolgirls’ sexual harassment and violence in schools is usually reinforced by cultural norms that perpetuate gender discrimination and inequality in the classroom.

There are indicators that schoolgirls who are subjected to this sort of violence suffer serious emotional and psychological trauma. According to several studies, fear or experience of sexual violence in schools is a major reason behind some girls’  poor performance and eventually dropping out of school.

Commenting on the issue, Dr Rebecca Winthrop, the director of the Centre for Universal Education, says despite the progress in enrolling girls in school in most countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, the job is only partly done. “Even when girls are able to access school, they often face serious threats that include sexual harassment and violence in and out of school,” says Winthrop.

This means that although schools are generally expected to be a safe haven for children, the emerging scenario for many teenage girls in Kenya is that schools can be a place of sexual harassment and violence. Even though the rape incident at Moi Girls’ has increased demand for action, in the past the law had been rarely applied to punish sexual offenders who prey on girls as parents often agree to compensation and reconciliation led by community animators. It is also good to know that causes of sexual violence in schools in Kenya are complex and continue to be deeply rooted in social, cultural, economic and institutional factors.