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‘Self-esteem was so low. Look at them now’ : the scheme getting Kenya’s girls back to school | Global education

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For much of her girlhood, Lucy Koriang* would spend her days taking the family’s goat herd out, walking for several kilometres a day, looking for the best grazing spots.

Being a goat herder was not a job she enjoyed or chose, especially in the unbearably high temperatures of Isiolo county, northern Kenya, where she lives. Her father, like most parents in Ngaremara village, saw little point in taking his children to school. Moving from the shelter of one thorny acacia tree to another, the 13-year-old would get lost in her thoughts, dreaming of a different life.

“Then one day they came and took me away from the field. It was a kidnap,” Lucy said. Four men, all in their mid-twenties, grabbed her and carried her off to become a wife to one of them. “The goats were over there,” she says, pointing to a spot in the distance. “They never asked me anything. I think I got pregnant that same day.”

In Ngaremara, similar stories of early marriages, unintended motherhood and perpetual poverty are commonplace. Stories of disillusioned and fearful girls denied their right to education and instead married off to men they never loved or even knew, men often two or three times their age.

These girls become part of the statistics – among the 260 million boys and girls who, according to British prime minister Boris Johnson “were being denied the schooling that should be their birthright” even before the Covid pandemic.

This week Johnson and Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, host the Global Education Summit, with the ambitious aim of facilitating a forum for leaders to pledge money that can be used to provide education in marginalised communities like Ngaremara. They hope to raise $5bn (£3.6bn) at a time when the UK is slashing its overseas aid budget and other nations face pressing needs on all sides.

Samuel Kiragu oversees standards at the education department in Isiolo county. He says there are probably 7,000 children in the county who have either dropped out of school or never started. Most are girls.

“It is about poverty and outdated cultural practices,” he says. “There are those who wish to be in class but lack access to education. In any case, we want to help the community understand that education is a basic right for the children.”

The girls in a catch up education centre in Isiolo, Kenya
Girls in a catchup education centre in Isiolo, Kenya. Most of the children who have dropped out of school or never started are girls. Photograph: Peter Muiruri

Government resources are tight, and the girls in Isiolo are among 5,000 out-of-school girls from marginalised communities and low-income households benefiting from the Education for Life initiative, which is supported by the UK.

It’s a relatively small, five-year project which runs until 2023 and targets girls aged between 10–19 years. About 70% never enrolled in school and 30% have had some formal education but dropped out.

In Isiolo, 1,034 girls, many of them mothers, are enrolled in 26 “catchup” centres, where they spend 6–9 months learning basic literacy skills. Similar programmes in Garissa, Kilifi, Migori and Kisumu counties are working with another 4,000 girls.

The literacy and life skills provided in these centres are intended to facilitate those aged 14 or under getting back into formal elementary schools, while those aged 15 years and above will be integrated into informal education or employment.

But breaking the deeply entrenched cultural barriers is no easy task for local organisations.

“We got men here asking, ‘why are you targeting the girls who are our source of wealth? Why invest in girls who will finally get married and leave home?’ Some would also hide children with disabilities,” says Patricia Makau, Education for Life coordinator at Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) Kenya, one of the implementing partners.

“You get around this by organising community forums to get acceptance from the patriarchs. We have to be as gentle as possible so as not to upset the fragile social balance. Though most of the underage girls are married, empowering them means they can become assets to their families.”

Patricia Makau (centre) of VSO Kenya with 19-year-old Susan Kamiti and 17-year-old Lucy Koriang.
Patricia Makau (centre) of VSO Kenya with 19-year-old Susan Kamiti and 17-year-old Lucy Koriang. Photograph: Peter Muiruri

In one such centre at Atan village, Janet Ekura, the education facilitator, was jotting the day’s lesson on a whiteboard – the term “teacher” is avoided for its hierarchical tone. Since January 2021, Ekura has been taking care of about 30 girls between the ages of 14–19.

During a break in the lessons, the young mothers dash off to a nearby homestead to check on their children, who are left under the care of a group of elderly women.

Ekura says the girls were scared and shy when the centres opened. “You have 19-year-olds who could not even write their names, make a telephone call using a cell phone – since they could not tell one contact from another, or input phone security features. Self-esteem was at an all-time low. Look at them now, they are handling basic arithmetic and language lessons. They can now speak out. Education is about confidence.”

Seated in another corner is Agnes Epong, an administrator. She too had to overcome the community’s stereotypes about women to become one of the mentors. After the lesson, Epong sits down with a group of about 10 girls, mentoring them on life skills.

“You were married early. Some of you are mothers and you can’t change [that]. Losing hope will not take you anywhere. But education will,” she says. The girls listen intently to every word. Epong has got used to the threats from some fathers and other local men who felt that their “old-age insurance” was slipping away. “We still prefer dialogue over force,” she says.

Persuasion has won local hearts, including that of John Eshua, 70, a village elder whose son is married to one of the girls in the centre. In Ngaremara, Eshua goes by his slang name maneno mingi or “the talkative one” in Swahili. He is not afraid of speaking up for the girls. “We should stop substituting a girl with a cow. Why should 10-year-old girls have babies? I told my son to let the girl get some education first before other social engagements. The girls are the light of the community.”

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‘My future is overseas’: Tunisians look to Europe as Covid hits tourism | Global development

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The seafront along the town of Hammamet in Tunisia is deserted. Looking out at the bright empty coast from his souvenir shop, Kais Azzabi, 42, describes the crowds that would stroll along the broad boulevards. Today, there is nobody.

“It was very busy here,” he says, gesturing to the street and the Mediterranean Sea beyond. “Since the corona started, everything stopped.”

Blasted by revolution, terror attacks and political instability, the pandemic has all but delivered a death blow to Tunisia’s embattled tourism sector, a former economic staple. Many of its employees are now looking across the sea for opportunities to build new lives in Europe.

Beyond the resorts, recent political events have done little to instil confidence in hotel workers. A presidential power grab in July, which suspended parliament, ousted the chief of government (prime minister), and put former constitutional law professor and political independent Kais Saied into office, has yet to deliver a new long-term vision for the country.

Amine*, 20, sits on the empty beach outside one of the resort’s imposing white hotels. The lifeguard from nearby Tazerka pushes a half-dead fish around a bucket as his friend wades into a lively sea in search of more.

“There were some Tunisian guests here earlier, but it’s dead now,” he says, through an interpreter, looking to the empty beach huts and stacks of unused loungers. “My future is overseas,” he says, remaining vague on how he might get there. “All my friends have gone [to Europe],” he says. “Tazerka is empty. All the nearby towns are empty. Everyone has gone.”

In August, migrant arrivals in Italy from Tunisia were up about 75% on the previous year. According to the International Organization for Migration, this marked “the highest number of departures since the aftermath of the 2011 revolution”. Among them, were 502 unaccompanied minors, as well as a further 138 travelling with at least one member of their family, suggesting that these were not temporary relocations.

In another part of Tazerka, Ramzi, 20, sells melons from the back of his father’s truck on the roadside. Every day, he travels with his father and cousins 150km (90 miles) from Kairouan to sell fruit. They can only do this during the summer months, surviving the winter on whatever they have saved in the tourist season or from occasional work his father can find in construction. Covid-19 has made a desperate situation worse, Ramzi’s father, Nouredinne, says.

“I only want to go to Europe,” Ramzi says. “I’ve been wanting to go there for five or 10 years.” One of his cousins, Wassim, shouts over that he has never had any goal other than to get to Europe since he was a child.

The only thing stopping them is money. “You need around 3,500 TD [Tunisian dinar], but that’s risky. If you have more, it’s more secure,” Wassim says, through an interpreter.

While coronavirus has hammered Tunisia’s economy, its tourism sector has been hardest hit. Even before the pandemic, the country’s sprawling identikit resorts, relying as they do on package tourism, were in trouble. Battered by revolution in 2011, a devastating terror attack in 2015 and subsequent travel bans, the country’s tourism sector had long ceased to offer the security it promised in the 1960s.

“Before the pandemic, the tourism sector represented around 7% of GDP,” says economist Radhi Meddeb. “Consolidated with the ancillary activities of transport, catering, leisure and crafts, its contribution increases to 14%.”

However, he adds: “If the trends observed so far continue until the end of the year, the contribution of the tourism sector to GDP will probably be negative, around -1% to -1.5% of GDP.”

Despite the best efforts of hoteliers, tens of thousands of jobs have been lost. Before the pandemic, more than half a million people were employed in tourism and its support services. Recent events, not least the travel bans imposed in response to Tunisia’s escalating Covid death rate, have put pay to much of that.

With the economy not expected to recover to pre-pandemic levels for some time, tourism in Tunisia “will never be what it was before the crisis”, says Meddeb, evidenced by the rows of abandoned hotels along the coast at Hammamet, Sousse, Monastir and beyond, signalling an end to the all-inclusive package holidays they once provided. “The Tunisian tourism model will have to reinvent itself.”

Back on the beach, Amine continues to push his solitary dying fish around the bucket. “You can see Pantelleria [Italian island] from my village,” he says. Asked how he’ll get there, he says “I’ll swim”.

* Full names not used to protect identities

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Navalny to get EU human-rights prize

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The European Parliament has formally nominated Russian dissident Alexei Navalny for this year’s ‘Sakharov’ human-rights prize. “It is vital that we in the European Parliament confirm our relentless support for Navalny and stress that his wellbeing is the responsibility of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin,” Peter van Dalen, a Dutch centre-right MEP said in plenary Monday. Putin tried to kill Navalny with poison then jailed him in a remote penal colony.

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Texas: The dramatic situation of Haitians trapped on US-Mexico border: ‘Why don’t they come help us here?’ | USA

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The border the separates Ciudad Acuña in Mexico from Del Río in the United States has become an open-air prison. Thousands of migrants, the vast majority of them from Haiti, have been surrounded by the authorities on either side of the frontier. On the US side, the Border Patrol is keeping those who have arrived there after crossing the Latin American continent in check: they are packed together under the International Bridge border crossing in a camp that lacks water, food, sanitation or shade. In Coahuila, on the Mexican side, security forces have begun to pressure migrants to accept “voluntary” detention and transfer to Tapachula, in the south of the country. In the middle of a stand-off between both governments for control over the arrival of migrants, thousands of people have become trapped in limbo.

A rope linking the two the banks of the Rio Grande was cut last Thursday, leaving nothing to hold on to when trying to cross. Despite now being fully aware of what awaits them on the other side, many people have been biding their time on the muddy slope that leads down to the water. They are still trying to make the crossing because they are scared and because Mexico will offer them no guarantees over the papers, protection and opportunities they are seeking. At 8pm the river is high, making it even more dangerous to attempt the crossing, but the Haitians clutch their bags tighter, gather up their children in their arms and throw themselves into the river. They are hardly assured a warm welcome on the other side. The administration of Joe Biden has already started an operation to deport thousands of irregular migrants, a practice described as “inhumane” by the US special envoy for Haiti, Daniel Foote, who tendered his resignation to the State Department on September 23.

A Haitian man and his son crossing the Rio Grande from Ciudad Acuña (Coahuila) to Del Río (Texas).
A Haitian man and his son crossing the Rio Grande from Ciudad Acuña (Coahuila) to Del Río (Texas).Teresa de Miguel

Dozens of police officers arrived at the makeshift camp on the Mexican side of the border at night and cut off access. Later, border guards joined the deployment and toured the area in an effort to convince Haitian migrants to surrender to “voluntary” detention. In exchange, they offered what until this point neither the US nor Mexican governments have done: water, food, restrooms, medical attention and legal assistance. “Why don’t they come and help us right here?” a woman asked the agents when they offered transportation to Tapachula in order to access these services.

In their scouring of the zone, where migrants make do in tents, tarpaulins fashioned from plastic bags or simply with cardboard to lie on, employees of the National Institute of Migration have been abundantly clear. The migrants have been informed that anyone “who is happy” where they are now is welcome to stay, while warning of the pending arrival of “extremely cold weather.” The area is awash with different police branches, alongside the Criminal Investigation Agency. The National Guard and the Coahuila State Organized Crime Action and Reaction unit are also on hand, with several buses.

“They come here to scare us. They only come to deceive people,” says Jonas Basel, a 31-year-old Haitian who is traveling with his wife and two daughters. Basel passed through Tapachula on his journey north from Chile, where the majority of migrants who have reached this point started out. He sees little point in accepting an invitation to go back to the border with Guatemala. “It’s full of people and the Comar [the Mexican Refugee Aid Commission] has collapsed. I’m not going to get a visa in less than three or more months, and nobody has any money.” Basel has $300 left from the $10,000 he set aside for the journey. “We spent everything to get this far.”

A police officer from Coahuila inside the Haitian migrant camp in Ciudad Acuña on Thursday.
A police officer from Coahuila inside the Haitian migrant camp in Ciudad Acuña on Thursday.Teresa de Miguel

The makeshift camp on the Mexican side was thrown up on federal land controlled by the state government of Coahuila. There, there is a place known as Comedor del Migrante (Migrant’s Diner), which has now been repurposed by its temporary residents as crowded rooms or restrooms in the absence of proper facilities. As of a week ago, the camp had started to take on the appearance of an organized space, with an improvised hair salon, prayer service in the evening, water and food provided by NGOs and private benefactors, as well as tents and a scattering of mattresses. But by Thursday, September 23, the mood had changed. “People are depressed. It’s very stressful,” said a pregnant woman.

The river had already started to swell by the afternoon when two women and a boy around eight years old entered the water. On the far bank, another migrant jumped in to help them because halfway across the child and the small toy truck he was carrying under an arm had almost disappeared under the water level. Also on the US side were a unit of US Border Patrol agents, powerless to assist but a “wall of steel” in the words of Texas Governor Greg Abbott, designed to prevent people from crossing the frontier. Later, another large group of families started to cross. Many carried a bag under one arm and a child in the other. From the far bank, the Border Patrol agents shouted from a launch that “only the children” could climb aboard. The parents handed over their sons and daughters and pleaded for help as the water rose above their chests.

A Haitian man and his son crossing the Rio Grande on Thursday.
A Haitian man and his son crossing the Rio Grande on Thursday.Teresa de Miguel

The International Committee of the Red Cross (CICR) has stated that these migrants are living in conditions of “extreme vulnerability” after months spent traversing Latin America and living rough in the temporary camps set up by the US and Mexican governments in both countries. The CICR has also noted that the situation in Haiti is “complicated” and has called on the authorities to “exercise practices that include humanitarian exceptions to protect people.”

“One way to do this,” says Lorena Guzmán, director of the regional CICR delegation for Mexico and Central America, “could be to provide them with immigration documentation to facilitate a legitimate stay in Mexico, minimizing the risks they face and granting them full access to rights on a temporary or permanent basis.”

The majority of people being held on both sides of the border are Haitians fleeing political and economic instability in their country. The poorest nation in the Western hemisphere suffered a devastating earthquake in 2010 that forced an exodus of thousands of people to countries in Latin America. The humanitarian crisis that unfolded over the past decade in the wake of that disaster has recently been exacerbated by the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in June and another earthquake in August, measuring 7.2 on the Richter scale, that left more than 2,000 people dead and thousands injured.

Having left Haiti years ago, these migrants now face one of two choices: either they will be deported by the United States back to the country they fled from or they will be sent back to Tapachula by Mexican authorities. Almost 15,000 Haitian migrants had gathered under the International Bridge that separates Ciudad Acuña and Del Rio, a number that had fallen to fewer than 5,000 by last Friday, according to the US authorities. Many have opted to retrace their steps and cross the Rio Grande once again into the United States, in what will perhaps be their final attempt and the exact reverse of a journey they made just a week ago.

English version by Rob Train.

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