Helping One Rural Girl to Become a Role Model

The girl-child has been the center of attention for several decades. This has accelerated since the World Summit for Children in 1990, but only more recently has attention turned toward rural girls. This is fully justified because rural girls are particularly disadvantaged. They do not have the same opportunities as their brothers to develop their full potential. They constitute a disproportionately high share of the out-of-school children who are vulnerable to child labor, malnutrition, female genital mutilation, early and multiple pregnancies, early marriage, and sex trafficking.

Rural girls eat less and are more malnourished than their brothers. They have a greater burden of domestic work. They are married early and often bear from five to seven children. Is it any wonder that premature births, low birth weights, and infant and maternal mortality rates are so much higher in rural areas? Malnutrition has to be tackled seriously by governments, communities, NGOs, and development partners. If not, the efforts to build physical infrastructure to benefit rural girls will go to waste. But the most serious challenge for rural girls is their lack of access to education. We must take up the challenge of education in every way we can, in communities and villages, even with one girl-child at a time.

[E]ven if she were educated, it is still not possible to get a what's the point in getting schooled?

—Rural mother, India

In April 2018, I traveled to Nairobi for a meeting. When I was there, I called Esther Muyoka, a shy young lady I met in the Chwele market in Western Kenya in March 2008. She happened to be in Nairobi, and we arranged to meet and catch up.

I had visited Chwele market, one of the largest in East Africa, while on a mission to Western Kenya as president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). I found Esther sitting in an internet café in the market. In the course of a brief conversation, I expressed a desire to visit a young person’s farm. Esther said that she had a vegetable garden on her father’s maize farm some five kilometers outside of the town. When we got there, her garden turned out to be a small patch of tomatoes and cabbage on her father’s “miserable-looking” farm. I asked if she liked agriculture, and she said yes. I then asked if she had studied it at school. Yes, she said, but the high school certificate results were not out yet. I asked if she would like to study agriculture. Again, she said yes, but her family could not afford the cost. I encouraged her to register at Moi University and to let me know if she was admitted. While still in the garden, her parents and uncle joined the conversation. The beauty of rural life!
REUTERS/Thomas Mukoy
REUTERS/Thomas Mukoy

It turned out that her grades were not good enough to gain direct entry into the university. She was advised to enroll in a technical school, obtain a diploma in agriculture, and then apply to the university. She did so, and with support from me, completed the diploma in two years. In 2010 she was admitted to study agriculture at Moi University. She graduated in 2013 with a BSc. Except for short-term internships and temporary jobs, she has not had full-time employment—but she has been able to change the fortunes of her family. Her father’s farm has now been diversified and is no longer so “miserable.” She helped her brother gain admission into the police force. Her family’s two-bedroom mud house is now a four-bedroom permanent house. As we talked and reminisced in Nairobi, I could not recognize the shy young lady I met 10 years ago. Esther is now self-confident, articulate, and determined to make a difference. She is a role model in her village.

Obtaining a university degree opens up opportunities, but this rural girl still has other obstacles to overcome.

Obtaining a university degree opens up opportunities, but this rural girl still has other obstacles to overcome. Employment is not based solely on qualifications. It depends heavily on connections, especially when jobs are scarce. Rural girls lack such connections. Esther, having gained some experience through internships and short-term employment, should go back to school for a graduate degree to increase her chances of employment or enroll in a youth entrepreneurship incubation program.
But a major step has been taken by one rural girl in Western Kenya. Esther has already demonstrated the great benefits that accrue to a family when a rural girl is given a chance to get an education. Millions more await opportunities to access education at any level. We can all contribute to make that possible and change families, communities, and the world.