By Ivy Maloy
Schools to be closed until further notice? Are we ready this time round? Well, whether or not we are, we really don’t have an option. For school going children who had been home for almost a year, some maybe happy to stay home but some may not be. Waking up every day for an undisclosed amount of days to do nothing? This will eventually wear them out and they’ll want to go to school, or they will want to play with their friends which will be impossible since they will have to stay indoors to avoid interactions with their mates as to limit the spread of the virus.
The closure of schools hinders Kenya’s Vision 2030 National Development Goals which try to achieve quality education for all. The ten-year action plan aims to address and implement the Sustainable Development Goals and thus safeguard the right to education. Under this framework and before the COVID-19 spread across the world, the government had prioritized digital literacy via its “digischool” program which aims to equip all students with the digital tools necessary to succeed in the modern world. But the government failed to do this as we saw during the first wave of the pandemic. The schools were not equipped to use digital means to continue teaching their students and also most people could not access internet services hence learning completely stopped in some schools. This time though, students were to stay home for the holidays for 7 weeks. The full effect of these guidelines will be felt after the 7 weeks are over and still schools are to remain closed.
The impact this has had to the girl child, especially those from low-income backgrounds especially during the first wave, was negative as so many girls got pregnant or got married. Considering the pre-existing gender disparities, girls, who already face stern barriers to education such as Female Genital Mutilation and forced early marriage are now in danger of being exposed to sexual violence and exploitation, child marriage and child trafficking. Schools have traditionally provided ‘safe havens’ for girls, which means that not attending school exposes them to greater risks of sexual violence and exploitation, child marriage and child trafficking.
The widespread poverty and inequality existent in Kenya create numerous additional challenges for children. Education systems remains unfunded, as evidenced by the large number of public and private schools currently unable to pay their staff.
Children in positions of vulnerability such as those with disabilities, living in poverty or those in close proximity to armed conflict and insecurity are further at risk of marginalization. Prior to the pandemic, children with disabilities were already failing to receive adequate support, while those in conflict zones were frequently uprooted from school due to recent rises in terrorist and violent activities. Schools provided vulnerable children with more than just education, as there are often vital sources of free school meals. Further, with the curfew and restriction of movement, parents are facing increased unemployment, children will eventually be pushed toward labor as primary income providers, without the safety net of school to shield them.
What really is the way forward? Many East African Countries have a long way to go in achieving Sustainable Development Goal 4, inclusive and equitable quality education. Greater budgetary allocation is required to combat this challenge in Kenya and the 4A-framework by The United Nations Human Rights Council in 2020 which is to assess challenges and priorities and ensure that no vulnerable child is left behind, education must align with the principles of:
- Availability – That systems are in place to safely enable in person and remote learning.
- Accessibility – That children are able to participate in distance-learning noting the specific socio-political and cultural challenges faced by vulnerable children and girls. Mapping and tracking the accessibility of education across the country would be helpful in this regard.
- Acceptability – That the quality of distance and in-person learning provided during the pandemic is high, with the educational materials being culturally appropriate for the children.
- Adaptability – That education provided during this time is adaptable to the changing needs of society in the face of the pandemic and supports all cultural settings.
The “4As” framework is a powerful tool to contextualize inequalities and build a culture of inclusivity and cooperation among education systems, while safeguarding the human rights of children in these dangerous times. The physical and mental health risks (such as depression, anxiety and isolation) that children are exposed to in the current climate are grave. The CRC does not contain a derogation clause and thus the right to education must be protected, while measures to curtail this right to protect public health must be imposed only when necessary, be proportionate and kept to an absolute minimum.
These interventions should be made in the spirit of Article 3(1) of the CRC which uplifts the “best interests of the child” as a principle of utmost importance (United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989). Schools have been shown to be the best way for pupils to achieve their full potential and in the words of Dr. Amoth, Technical Advisor to the Health Cabinet Secretary: “we cannot lose a generation because of a pandemic”