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The power of adult education: Addressing rural Kenya's gender divide

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Before Elizabeth (55) began adult education, her life was typical of many women in rural Kenya. She was a housewife in West Pokot county and spent the majority of her time looking after her children.

Even as a child, it was difficult for Elizabeth to imagine a different future. Most of her childhood was spent looking after cattle as she waited to be married.
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Elizabeth’s longing to be able to read the Bible with her local church group compelled her to take up adult education. She wanted to be able to pick up a Bible and read it for herself. Her ambition was to run a small, profitable business, and develop her own farmland to support her family financially.
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It wasn’t all smooth sailing for Elizabeth. As a woman she bore the brunt of domestic chores, childcare, and having to look after cattle, making it difficult to find the time to attend adult education classes. Often, she would have to wait until her children had come home from school and could take care of the cattle, before leaving to go to her classes.

Elizabeth and other women of her community must choose between putting bread on the table and going to adult education class in order to better their future. 

Adults who cannot read or write often face stigma. They do not want to be taught in school buildings like their children or to appear uneducated. However, a lack of resources often stops adults from attending adult learning classes, as many cannot afford exercise books and pencils.  
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    Despite such challenges, Elizabeth persevered for nearly a decade. Growing up in West Pokot, she was once only able to speak the Pökoot language. Adult education enabled her to read and write Kiswahili, the dominant language in Kenya.

    She also learned how to operate basic technology, and undertook agricultural training, through which she was able to grow crops on her own land. This was key in helping her set up her own business of growing and selling millet in the local market.
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    Those who see Elizabeth read the Bible in church or conduct her business in the marketplace, often stop and ask her how they can also do the same.

    My life has changed. I now know how to read my child’s report card. I can now know whether my child has performed good or bad at school. When I am at church and the pastor tells us to open the Bible to a chapter and verse, I can now open the Bible and read it for myself.

    As a result, several women have joined adult education classes with Elizabeth to learn to read and write Kiswahili and start their own businesses.

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    For Simon (46), Elizabeth’s teacher, seeing the transformation in his students from when they first start adult learning to when they finally leave, is the most rewarding part of his job.

    But the effect of adult education on the wider community is just as significant. Poverty is reduced, the standard of living of learners increases, and they become active members of their communities.

    West Pokot suffers high levels of female genital mutilation and gender violence. Those attending adult learning classes are more likely to shun these practices.


















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    Simon’s journey to teaching was anything but ordinary. He began his career as an athlete, representing Kenya as a long-distance runner, competing in races around the world. He found that many other Kenyan athletes were unable to calculate the pay they received from their managers or work out whether they were being underpaid.

    After training, Simon would teach them maths. Over time, he also began teaching basic English so that his fellow athletes could go into towns and markets to buy goods. Since then, Simon has never looked back. He has been a dedicated adult educator for more than 15 years.
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    In Kenya, enrolment in adult literacy classes among minority groups has improved as a result of an enhanced partnership with the West Pokot county government, which has mobilized 330 community adult educators. The intensive mobilization of learners by the Kenya Adult Learners Association (KALA) has also contributed to improving adult learning participation.  

    Statistics for 2019 indicated an illiteracy rate of 68.2% in the West Pokot region, with women representing the majority of those lacking literacy skills. The county government aims to halve this number by 2022, eventually bringing it to zero.  
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    However, challenges persist. A lack of funding and the disruptions and effects of COVID-19 have led to a significant decline in the number of available educators, leaving only 330 adult educators for 7,200 adult learners.  

    As Simon notes: 'We are struggling against the odds. Adult education has declined over the years due to lack of funding and, as life continues, staff continue to retire and there is no replacement at all'.

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    These challenges propel Simon to work even harder to recruit learners and educators to the programme. Local community leaders persuade adults to attend classes as do former students of the programme who can testify to its transformative benefits.  

    For Simon, those benefits come in the form of being able to teach someone to read a book, operate a phone, or grow their own vegetables. In his view, it’s the small things that have the biggest impact.  

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    The developments in adult learning and education in the West Pokot County are featured in the Fifth Global Report on Adult Learning and Education (GRALE 5), which will be launched on 15 June 2022 at the Seventh International Conference on Adult Education (CONFINTEA VII) in Marrakech, Morocco.

    GRALE 5 combines survey data, policy analysis and case studies to provide policy-makers, researchers and practitioners with an up-to-date picture of the status of adult learning and education in UNESCO Member States.
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