Indiana University      Research & Creative Activity      January 1999 Volume XXI Number 3


To Auma Okwany, a doctoral candidate in IU's School of Education, policy issues in her home country of Kenya are not abstract. When it comes to her research specialty- education for "street girls"--policy has a human face that she has seen on the streets of Nairobi.

Auma Okwany, doctoral candidate, School of Education, Indiana University Bloomington, stands in front of a kanga, a traditional piece of clothing worn in East Africa. --credit

"I was walking down the street and I heard a voice saying in Swahili: 'Why don't you ask that auntie (for money)?'" (Auntie is a term of respect for women, denoting seniority.) "There was a two-and-a-half-year-old little child asking for money. And I turned around, looked at the mother. . . . From afar she looked like an older woman, but she was actually sixteen." The young woman had lost her family and had herself been displaced by ethnic fighting. She dropped out of school and went to the city to find her only living relative--the husband of a deceased aunt--who helped her at first, then coerced her into a sexual relationship. Okwany explains: "Trapped and helpless, she conceived, had the baby, but when he started physically abusing her after his drinking sprees, she fled onto the streets of Nairobi."

Thousands of street children struggle for livelihood in the slums of Nairobi, Kenya's capital and largest city. Although most of the children have homes, a complex of factors--ranging from the breakdown of the traditional extended family to dire financial necessity--drive the children onto the streets to beg, to hustle, to prostitute themselves for money. The education they need to break out of poverty is beyond their reach. "Education in Kenya is not free," Okwany explained. "Although there are no school fees, inadequate government subsidy in public education has to be supplemented by numerous levies on parents (including books, school uniforms, transportation and building funds). Access to and continuation in public school is determined by ability to meet these extra costs, putting education out of the reach of the urban poor. Street children are therefore involuntary dropouts."

Okwany, who is in IUB's Program in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies, concentrates on street girls for two main reasons. Gender disparities in the educational system and cultural practices marginalize girls generally and account for their high dropout rate. Being both poor and female, street girls are doubly marginalized. Worse still, many are engaged in invisible labor so are unseen and overlooked. The second reason is that although it takes longer to educate a girl who has dropped out, the long term advantages to society are great. Okwany knows of one young woman who is only in her late 20s but who is already a grandmother. Okwany says: "My whole argument and the significance of my study is I'm saying that they're perpetuating a vicious cycle. You ignore the girls, (but) they are giving birth to girls who are giving birth to all these children and the cycle goes on. We need to break that cycle."

Okwany's research will inventory what education is available to street girls and assess its effectiveness. She will evaluate one of the few alternative programs that provides education to these out-of-school youths and assess how they are providing for girls relative to boys. The study will examine if and how street girls' special needs and circumstances are being taken into consideration and the implications for sensitive policy formulation. One of Okwany's advisors, Margaret Sutton, assistant professor of education, says that the work is needed: "The children who live on the street are most often assumed to be boys, who threaten the social order with their potential for violence and crime. The girls who live on the street, as Auma is showing, are largely invisible to child welfare reformers."

Okwany will spend several months in Nairobi with support from a grant she has won from the Margaret McNamara Memorial Fund. The program, named after the wife of Robert McNamara, first president of the World Bank, was established to allow women from developing countries to pursue work that will improve the lives of women and children. The grant carries prestige as well as financial support: only six winners are named each year from women studying throughout the United States.

Sutton said, "I am confident that Auma's work will contribute directly to improved service provision for these girls. It is also likely to change thinking about what it means to society as a whole when children of either gender live on the street."

Okwany is an experienced teacher. She taught high school in Kenya for two years after her 1987 graduation from Kenyatta University, and she came to IU as a lecturer in Swahili after earning her master's degree in curriculum and instruction, concentrating in second language education, from the University of New Brunswick in Canada.

She wants her research with the street girls to make an impact. "I don't want to just go there and get their story and leave," she said. She even switched her emphasis from language to educational policy to be able to have a more direct effect on the dropout phenomenon and to look at "how policies can be changed and made more effective so these urban children in distress can be given a second chance."

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