Like many young women in Kenya, Miriam Wambui graduated high school without a job and without money to attend university. She hadn’t been greatly exposed to technology and had no idea she needed to learn about it. But while doing community-based volunteer work, she heard about Nairobits—a nonprofit that offers Kenyan youth ages 15 to 24 training in information computer technology, and she went from, as she describes it, “not knowing how to press a mouse,” to becoming an expert in information communications technology (ICT) and gaining skills like Web design and development. Ms. Wambui is now project coordinator for three Nairobits centers for girls in some of Nairobi’s poorest neighborhoods. Wambui, along with others in Kenya, including at the African Centre for Women, Information and Communications Technology (ACWICT), see ICT as “a potent force in transforming social, economic and political lives of women globally.”
At Nairobits, young women who were given the chance to get educated in technology often initially had trouble learning in co-ed classes, since technology has been traditionally viewed as a field for males and they felt uncomfortable competing. Families in Kenya, Wambui says, can be against girls getting an education, since “after primary school, boys’ education is given priority and the expectation is that girls will ‘take on roles that are much more maternal.’” Nairobits’ solution was to open girls’ centers to give women a chance to learn, share, and interact in a supportive environment. For Wambui, that included mentorship of students, teaching life skills, and working with parents who often don’t understand the value of computers as a part of everyday life.
According to ACWICT, the problem of girls in Kenya not having upper level education is coupled with those of “high unemployment, lack of skills relevant to the workplace by the young people, lack of information on available job opportunities, lack of networks and connections among youth,” and “lack of available jobs suited to entry-level skills,” among other things. These are global concerns. Kennedy Odede, founder & CEO of Kenya’s Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO), a nonprofit combating poverty and gender inequity, spotlighted how we’ve fallen short on education in the Huffington Post last week. The UN’s Millennium Development Goals set in 2000, “instituted that quality primary school education was a basic right for every child and it would happen by 2015,”
“It’s 2015,” and, as Odede says, “59 million children still cannot go to primary school and 62 million girls don’t get to go to secondary school.” Now, “the UN General Assembly [has] formally adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development,” which includes the goals of “ensuring access to quality education and promoting gender equality.”
The other critical components following education are job opportunities and the fostering of entrepreneurship. The ACWICT cites statistics that in Kenya, “while an estimated 750,000 young people enter the workforce annually, only 15 percent get absorbed into formal employment, leaving the rest…to take up informal work and/or face the brunt of poverty.” Kenyan girls are at a particular disadvantage, according to data from the United Nations, because “only 41 percent of young women continue their education after high school.”
But entrepreneurship is providing new avenues to supplement the educational initiatives. When President Obama spoke this July at the 2015 Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Nairobi, he said, “This continent needs to be a future hub of global growth and Kenya is setting an important example—Kenya is leading the way.” Pledging $1 billion to support entrepreneurship projects worldwide, with half earmarked for women and youth, President Obama called women “powerhouse entrepreneurs” and said, “research shows that when women entrepreneurs succeed, they drive economic growth and invest more back into their families and communities.”
So, the pieces are in place. With continued support, young women in Kenya and elsewhere may be able to follow in the footsteps of Wambui and Odede in the continuing fight for women’s education and equality.
[This article first appeared in Non-Profit Quarterly]