APHRC Research Scientist Dr. Benta Abuya Is Working To Improve The Lives Of Children In Urban Informal Settlements Through Educational Programs

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image of Benta Abuya, research scientist at Africa Population Health and Research Centre

Education is important, there is no question about that. It opens our doors to a myriad of opportunities, while at the same time expanding our minds to different viewpoints. In fact, Nelson Mandela wholeheartedly believed that ‘Education is the most powerful tool we can use to change the world.’

It is for this and other reasons that Benta Abuya has chosen to focus on the creation of educational opportunities and especially for women. Benta is part of a multidisciplinary team of researchers at the African Population Health and Research Center.

At the moment, Benta Abuya doubles up as a Principal Investigator for the Regional Education Learning Initiative (RELI) that has over 40 education partners working on education issues in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). She is also the Principal Investigator and Project Manager of the project titled, Advancing learning outcomes for transformational change (The ALOT- Change) in the urban informal settlements which aims to increase efforts towards securing the future of children in urban informal settlements.

Dr. Benta Abuya has worked both in Kenya and Senegal, with the aim of achieving gender equity by increasing opportunities for girls and women to go through quality education. She has also worked as the Project Manager for Quality and Access to Education in Urban Informal Settlements in Kenya in the Education Research Program. 

Benta Abuya has achieved key milestones in academia. She holds a Ph.D. in Education Theory and Policy, a Ph.D. in Comparative and International Education, and a Doctoral Minor in Demography from the Pennsylvania State University, University Park, USA (2010). She also holds a Master of Arts degree in Population Studies from the Population and Research Institute, University of Nairobi, and a Bachelor of Education (Arts) degree from Moi University.

  1. Tell us what exactly you do for the African Population and Health Research Centre?

As the Research Scientist at APHRC, I bring a demographic lens to the study of education and particularly looking at how the sexual and reproductive health of adolescents is an integral part of studying education outcomes for adolescent girls. Moreover, as I look at the educational outcomes for girls, I am deliberate about infusing the equity, equality, and non-discrimination lenses into the study of girls’ education. 

2. Tell us about some of the projects that you have initiated geared towards equity in education.

Among the projects that I have initiated include the “Advancing Learning Outcomes and Transformational Change (The ALOT-Change) which has been implemented in the Urban Informal settlements for the last 8 years. This project has been implemented in Phases, I, II, and III. The project’s goal is to increase efforts towards securing the future of children in urban informal settlements by improving learning outcomes, transition to secondary school, leadership skills, and social behaviour among girls and boys aged 12-19 years who live in urban informal settlements.

We realized quite a number of successes in phase I and II of the program which includes improved transition rates of up to 22%, improved learning outcomes in numeracy and literacy, improved career awareness, and enhanced self-confidence and esteem. Moreover, we saw improved responsibility, planning and time management, better resilience to peer pressure, reduced delinquency among adolescents, and enhanced parent-child communication. This project also realized a reduction of insecurity in the community and the creation of a pool of champions of change that are motivated to bring about transformation in the community.

Building on these accomplishments, we proposed a three-year follow-up study of the same cohort of 824 girls and boys who were in the previous program as they enter and progress through the secondary school level. The proposed study aims to establish the sustainability of the impact of the A LOT-Change program as well as test the feasibility of the adapted A LOT-Change program among secondary school students. 

3. What are some of the conclusions that came from the study in Senegal?

Phase 1 of the study was completed in 2019, which shows that in elementary and middle schools, girls’ enrolment is higher than the boys, but this slows down as girls enter the secondary education sector. The higher enrolment in elementary school can be explained by the numerous programs that have been enacted in support of girls. I have also been involved in different projects, among them “Quality and Access to Education in Urban Informal Settlements in Kenya” (ERP III), and “Adolescent Girls Initiative” Kenya (AGI-K).

4. How did your project at Senegal come about?

In order to be able to expand the work of girls to the West African region, I together with my colleagues, sought for funding to initiate an “Improving Girls Education in West Africa” whose goal was to improve education outcomes and overall well-being of girls in Senegal.

5. As the Principal Investigator of Improving Learning Outcomes and Transition to Secondary School at APHRC, how can you compare learning in Kenya and in Senegal?

In terms of girls’ education, the challenges to girls’ education seem to be similar in these two contexts. For example, both the West Africa region and the East African region struggle with the disparity in education. In addition, cultural, socioeconomic, and religious factors continue to hinder girls’ access to and completion of school.

In the rural areas, girls bear the greatest effect of these factors because the population is mostly poor, and cannot afford to provide their children with the needed basic education. Similarly, children and girls in poor households are disproportionately absent in schools, and in comparison with boys and children from well-to-do households. Girls stand to lose more as the impact of COVID-19 ravages the households. For example

6. How big is the gender equity gap in education and other sectors, both in Kenya and in Senegal?

Kenya, like Senegal, are countries that are striving to achieve the Sustainable Development Agenda. To this end, the two countries are focused on goal 4, which is to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.’

In terms of gender equality and empowerment, the SDG goal 5 agenda is clear, that countries, Kenya and Senegal included, should strive for gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls. This is because SDG goal 5 is a catalyst for the achievement of all the other goals. In the long run, the development will only be sustainable, if the benefits can accrue equally to both women and men.

It should be noted that bridging the gender gap is an incremental process, it may take some time for the gender gap to close. For instance, according to the Ministry of Education, in 2019, gender parity has been achieved in primary and secondary school levels, in Kenya at 0.97 and 1.00, respectively. However, gender disparities exist across various regions or Counties. For example, a total of 23 Counties have gender disparity in favour of boys, 17 have achieved gender parity while 7 have gender disparity in favour of girls. At the primary level, only one County had gender disparity in favour of girls, 19 in favour of boys, and 27 have achieved gender parity.

7. As the Project Manager for Quality and Access to Education in Urban Informal Settlements in Kenya in the Education Research Program (ERP), what has been your biggest achievement?

As a project manager for the “Quality and Access to Education”, I was privileged to manage the study across 5 urban towns of Mombasa, Kisumu, Eldoret, Nairobi, and Nyeri. 

The introduction of the Free Primary Education (FPE) policy in 2003, saw an increase in school enrolment countrywide. However, it created a decline in demand for public schools as more pupils went for private schools with about 47% of children in urban informal settlements (slums) enrolling in non-government schools as of 2012.

This report highlighted the concerns on the quality of education offered in urban poor public primary schools in Kenya. Additionally, it also highlighted that there are fewer government schools in urban informal settlements to cater to the rapid increase in informal settlement populations. Therefore, the government through the Ministry of Education in recent years invested a lot of resources in improving access and quality of education to learners in Kenya, in an attempt to provide universal education for all and the attainment of Vision 2030.

8. Why are you so passionate about gender equity and why in education specifically?

I can summarize my passion for gender equity by this quote, “When you educate a girl, you educate a whole community.” This is a statement that has been used by researchers, like myself, policymakers, educators, and ordinary citizens when acknowledging the importance of educating girls.

Since the global meeting on Thematic Consultation on Education held on 18th to 19th March 2013 in Dakar, Senegal, education has remained essential as one of the basic human rights and one of the prerequisites for the realization of other rights. Moreover, educating girls has remained one of the most important single contributors to the empowerment of communities and countries.

For example, according to (UNESCO, 2013), each year that a child spends in school denotes a 10% increase in a country’s potential income and a 1% increase in a country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). As such, good-quality education enhances the likelihood of achieving development priorities such as eradicating poverty and overcoming inequality globally. Gains were made with the signing of the sustainable development goals declaration in 2015, with one of the key targets being that of promoting gender equality and empowering women.

9. Quoting from your article on The Conversation, ‘The longer girls spend out of school during these unprecedented times of COVID-19, the more they’re at risk of dropping out.’ Why is this the case?

This is because of the susceptibility of girls to domestic violence. Most critical is the fact that prolonged duration at home is a precursor to children being exposed to gender-based violence (GBV) particularly defilement of girls and exposure to drug abuse, and teenage pregnancy.

Gender-based violence may arise because of the following; result in loss of parental care due to death, illness or separation, neglect and exploitation by the caregivers, economic uncertainty, increased caregiving responsibilities, and social isolation which exacerbates conflicts at home, thereby putting girls in the middle of the violence. Another reason is the long stay at home also exacerbates girls’ risk of spending more time on household labour, with some of their duties being working on farms, household chores, and caring for younger siblings. All this if not checked, may cut back on the gains that nations, and in particular Kenya have strived for in the quest to attain gender equity and inclusion.

10. What can the governments do to mitigate this before it occurs?

The governments can work with parents and education stakeholders to sensitize the parents and the communities to support learning for girls.

Also, working with boys and men who are the perpetrators of the SGBV is paramount so that they are made aware to keep the girls safe. This is because, the boys and men are their peers, and future partners, while men are the fathers who need to also appreciate their daughters.

Parents may also have to be engaged in other income generation activities to earn income and thereby, keep their children in school particularly girls. This is to avoid the temptation of engaging girls in income generation activities.

Lastly, we need to harness the power of community resources, to support the girls’ education. An example is through an intervention, called, “the Advancing Learning Outcomes and Transformational Change (A LOT Change) that the African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC) is implementing in the two urban communities of Korogocho and Viwandani.

11. In the last decade, are we as a nation making adequate steps forwards towards achieving gender equity in education? What are the hindrances?

Yes, we are. Some of the hindrances are sociocultural, economic factors that may hinder access to, retention, and school completion among vulnerable populations, particularly girls. Generally, there is a lot to celebrate in terms of Free Secondary Education (FSE), and the 100% transition. All that is to ensure that children and especially girls are able to move through the pipeline.

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