This post was written by Sarah Manyeki, Monitoring & Evaluation Officer for Mothers’ Union Kenya – Anglican Overseas Aid’s partner in The Road Less Travelled project.
In the pastoralist communities of Kenya, there are several factors that limit women’s participation in safe motherhood practices, with the substantive factor being illiteracy. In Laikipia County, where the project works, 40 per cent of men are literate in Swahili while barely 25 per cent of women are. In Samburu County, 30 percent of men are literate while only 15 percent of women are. Figures for English literacy are even lower. Illiteracy not only inhibits mothers from reading and understanding their children’s clinic cards, prescriptions, and nutritional advice, but it also lowers their confidence and increases difficulties in understanding – much less applying – legal rights.
Suzan is working hard to change this. She is one of four female Community Development Committee (CDC) members elected to represent the Chumvi Group Ranch in Laikipia County, Kenya. The CDC was formed in March 2012, with the support of The Road Less Travelled project. Suzan is one of the few Maasai women from this community who has been fortunate to have the opportunity to participate in education up to the secondary school level.
Statistics from The Road Less Travelled’s recent baseline survey indicate that 65% of the respondents had no schooling at all. The number of males attending secondary schools was double that of girls in Laikipia Country, and three times as high as girls in Samburu County. These findings also showed there was a preference for boys to gain education over girls.
When the first training in the Strength-Based Approach (SBA) was offered to the CDC members by the project, Suzan realised the need to improve literacy amongst the other women within her community. She says that even after women attending the antenatal clinics whereby their weight is taken, return date written on the card and advice on the kind of diet routine to be followed is recorded – the women are forced to go back and look for a person who can read and interpret the information on the card to them. In the event they do not get someone to read and interpret for them, then they are not able to follow the instructions. It is on this basis that Suzan felt compelled to do something to improve the situation, and so she decided to start a community literacy education class.
Suzan started her class in 2012 and she now has 15 women attending her classes. The class runs for two hours, three days per week. Although she doesn’t discriminate against men, so far no male has joined her class. Every member of the class contributes 100 Kenyan shillings (or about $1.30 AUD) each month, which goes towards Suzan’s remuneration.
Suzan does, however, face a number of challenges. During drought, as was the case during this interview, the number of the women attending classes reduces drastically. This is because the workload for women increases during these periods. Many walk for much longer distances to look for water, while others take their livestock further in search of water and pasture. This robs them of the time they should be attending classes. During this time, they are unable to pay the monthly fee therefore making it increasingly difficult for Suzan, who is a single parent and relies on this income to meet some of her obligations. She explains that she has not been trained for the job and therefore does not have the necessary skills. Gaining access to training materials is also a challenge for her, as she is not an accredited teacher by the Government’s department of Adult Education and therefore cannot access the classroom materials they have developed for free.
The literacy training is anticipated to have significant impacts including increasing the potential for women to be active members of CDCs, be in a better position to manage their own and family health, and potentially undertake other formal education opportunities.
While her work has its challenges, Suzan continues to encourage her students to be consistent in attending the classes. She feels that there is a difference between an educated woman and one who is not, and that increased education can lead to improvements in other areas. “An educated woman knows the importance of cleaning her hands after visiting the toilet, while one without an education will not,” explains Suzan.
As a member of the Community Health Committee, Suzan has also received training as a Community Health Worker (CHW) through The Road Less Travelled project. During her literacy classes, she utilises the knowledge gained through her health training with the Ministry of Health to educate the women in her community about sanitation and hygiene, and healthy living practices.
Suzan acknowledges that those attending the lessons are progressing well and most can read simple words, while some can write the alphabet in full. As the women encourage others in the community to join them, it is hoped that increased literacy will go a long way to supporting the other development initiatives that have been identified by the community as part of The Road Less Travelled project.