The Positive Impacts of Mobilizing Civil Society in Kenya

Janet Muthoni-Ouko

The name of our coalition, Elimu Yetu, means ‘Our Education’ in Swahili. This name was chosen to remind us every day why it is important not only to achieve inclusive, quality and free public education for all citizens in Kenya, but also to ensure our voice is heard when realizing this right. 

When in 2003 our government abolished primary school tuition fees and implemented the Free Primary Education (FPE) Policy, it was to some extent a result of the huge public pressure exerted by Kenyan citizens, and we celebrated this as a victory for the Kenyan people. The continued advocacy from organized civil society groups contributed to the reinforcement of this commitment in the new Kenyan Constitution of 2010, which affirms that "every child has the right to free, public, basic education, from early childhood, to primary and secondary school".

Education is still not free for some Kenyan families

However, our fight continues. The realization of the education for all goals is impeded by several challenges currently facing our education system. These include malnutrition, which can seriously affect the cognitive development of school children; distance and transportation – for many children transportation is unaffordable and the distances to school are too far to walk; poor health and lack of available medical attention; and a failure to fully implement the laws around education.

For example, students in various parts of the country are still charged primary school fees, and secondary schools remain fee-charging. Some secondary schools charge up to $1,200 per year, which is far beyond the reach of many Kenyans – indeed, 50% of Kenyans earn an average of $900 per year or less. So-called ‘low-fee’ for-profit schools are also emerging, which undermines the constitutional right to free, public education for all – and especially excludes children who live in slums and in very poor conditions.

A taskforce to review school fees

To respond to some of the challenges, in 2013 the Elimu Yetu Coalition began a campaign to compel the Kenyan government to increase funding for secondary schools, and to control secondary school fees, which varied greatly from school to school. We collaborated with members, partner organizations and academics across the country to gather evidence of fees enforcement and their impact on access and completion rates.

Our findings were shared by national media outlets and the subsequent public outcry could not be ignored. The Kenyan government set up a taskforce on school fees, and I was appointed to this committee on behalf of the coalition.

The latest proposal we submitted to the taskforce called for additional government funding and regulation to curb illegal fee increases. Our proposal was accepted, and the taskforce recommended a 50% reduction in school fees.

Despite this, the findings remained unimplemented. With vigorous support from Kenyan citizens, we decided to present a petition to Members of Parliament (MPs) to enforce the findings of the taskforce. Citizens and campaigners even took their protest to the streets to get their voices heard.

Public pressure leads to progress

Ultimately, the collective voice of Kenyan citizens was heard. MPs and the Deputy President intervened and guidelines were released immediately to ensure that Kenyan children who have been priced out of secondary education are no longer subject to unregulated fees. The guidelines have since been gazetted, and some school heads have already been taken to court by parents for violating them.

Despite this achievement, there’s still a long way to go – including the eradication of fees at secondary level. At present, Elimu Yetu is planning to set up a toll-free call center to enable monitoring and reporting of cases where head teachers continue to charge unlawful school fees. We want to use this as another way to hold our government accountable to its commitment to quality, free and inclusive education.

Building up civil society’s voice

Elimu Yetu stands today as a credible, authentic voice and constructive partner in education sector dialogue. We are very proud of our contribution to the development of the 2010 Constitution. This kind of impact relies heavily on the support we receive from the Civil Society Education Fund (CSEF).

For our coalition, and for many more in the global South, the CSEF support enables citizens to mobilize and exert our rights as active participants in both our democracies and in our education systems. Without this support, we would not have been able to run such far-reaching and impactful campaigns. By working together, with families, communities and organizations from grassroots to international level, we can ensure that citizens play a part in the decisions that affect them and the future of education in Kenya.

Janet Muthoni Ouko is the National Coordinator of the Elimu Yetu Coalition (EYC) in Kenya, and represents civil society in the global South on the GPE Board of Directors. Elimu Yetu is one of 54 national civil society education coalitions supported by the Civil Society Education Fund (CSEF), which operates in Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and Eastern Europe. CSEF is managed by the Global Campaign for Education, and is currently funded by the Global Partnership for Education.

Photo Credit: Elimu Yetu Coalition

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