Rwathia Girls School in Murang’a County has been in the news for a week. It all started when the girls flocked out of school demanding shorter skirts, as reported. Everyone got sucked into the swirling social vortex including Kenya’s minister of education.
By focusing on the skirts, we are skirting the real issues.
First, the predominance of this issue surprised me. It reminded me of a year I spent teaching Mathematics and Physics in a girl’s school I will not disclose for security reasons. Skirts were not an issue then. It was more about academic performance. Why is it an issue now?
Some could argue times have changed and there is more freedom to discuss anything. Others contend that by focusing on skirts, we are portraying ourselves as a cheap and an idle nation.
But for the tailors, the issue of skirts comes with an economic angle. Short skirts would be welcome because they take less material for the same price. If you are producing for mass market, for example, under American Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), shorter skirts could translate into huge profits. Interestingly, priciest women dresses and shoes are made of minimal amount of materials.
But to the Rwathia girls, the real issue is choice. Economists argue that one sign of affluence is availability of choices. An affluent person can choose where to live, eat, travel, who to associate with and even who to marry. Have you noted how Kenya’s elite is “browning” after cross racial marriages? I am told it’s the new ultimate status symbol, very hard to copy or fake.
So should girls have a choice on what to wear? Lawyers and human rights activists will quickly say yes. But economists might argue otherwise. The girls have no income and have few choices. Their income is “delegated” by parents or guardians. It can be argued that by denying them choices today, we give them more choices in future. It is a simple trade off-you can choose today, but have no choices tomorrow.
Some of the most successful Kenyans today (economically), the captains of the industry, entrepreneurs, and technocrats rose to their current status because their parents or their environment denied them choices. They had one pair of shoes or none, shared beds with siblings, had one trouser or skirt and other limitations.
That lack of choices motivated them to work hard in school to have more choices later in life. Today, some of these affluent Kenyans find it hard to choose what to wear in the morning.
Unfortunately, too many choices can be a problem, the reason why affluent people are more likely to divorce — they have more choices of mates before and after divorce.
Rwathia Girls and other students should not have liberty to choose. They have no economic power. Parents and teachers should have the mandate to limit choices based on economic reality.
Most parents today are worried about the success of their children who they keep reminding have everything but cannot work hard in school. Why should they work if they have everything, and can make choices on everything from where to shop and what to shop, what car to be driven in and what model of a cell phone to own? Is investment not postponed gratification?
Some could argue the girls are customers and should determine what they need. A popular myth customer is king was debunked by the late Apple CEO Steve Jobs. The legendary innovator argued eloquently that it is not the business of the customer to know that he wants. And true to the argument, we did not demand I-Pods and I-Pads, but we bought them when Apple Inc made them.
Secondly, you cannot be a customer if you have no power to purchase.
The issue of long versus short skirts is also about regulation, which is like a spice. Too much is bad and too little is ineffective.
Regulation is used all over the world by governments to create a level playing ground among economic players. Capital Markets Authority (CMA) for instance regulates the stock market to ensure there is no insider trading and other malpractices.
Getting the optimal level of regulation to ensure optimal output is not an exact science. Head teachers are in the same dilemma, what optimal amount of regulation will ensure students grow up responsibly and holistically? Rwathia headmistress must have acted in good faith and needs our support and a promotion.
The saga of skirts is a microcosm of a society in transition from the older familiar order to the new uncharted territory defined by social media and peers.
The girls could be pioneers of generation Z, ready to challenge the old order but providing no tangible alternative. Our nation is transition. We liberalised the economy; there are still echoes of monopoly and state controls. We changed the Constitution; the promises are yet to be delivered judging from the disputes arising from its implementation.
Finally to Rwathia girls and students elsewhere, if you want to make all choices today, you may have none to make tomorrow.
So, soma Baby, soma!