How Kenyan girls are getting on the tech job track

How Kenyan girls are getting on the tech job track

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By Tasbeeh Herwees. This profile is part of TakePart’s “I Am Malala” series, telling the stories of young people around the world who are following in the footsteps of Malala Yousafzai by breaking down cultural and political barriers and championing children’s and girls’ education. The series coincides with the October release of the documentary He Named Me Malala, produced by Participant Media, the parent company of TakePart.

Miriam Photo credit: Nairobits Trust/Facebook

Miriam Wambui, Photo credit: Nairobits Trust/Facebook

When she graduated from high school in Nairobi, Kenya, Miriam Wambui had no idea what she wanted to do with her life. Her mom, a widow, couldn’t afford to pay her university fees. So Wambui stayed at home, spending much of her time volunteering for community-based organizations.

It was then that she heard, for the first time, of an organization called Nairobits—a nonprofit that offers Kenyan youths ages 15 to 24 training in information computer technology, as well as programs in entrepreneurship, life skills, and reproductive health. Best of all, enrollment in Nairobits was completely free. Wambui signed right up.

“I didn’t even know what I was going to learn,” she said, her voice full of amazement. “First of all, I didn’t even have any experience in a computer. I didn’t even have a Facebook account. Imagine! I didn’t even know how to press a mouse.”

Wambui learned an arsenal of tech skills, including Web design and development, at Nairobits. For a while, she made use of her talents at NGOs around Kenya, including a women’s legal advocacy program called FIDA Kenya. But soon she found herself volunteering, once again, at Nairobits. It wasn’t long before the organization hired her.

nairo-bits-inilne2

Photo: Courtesy Nairobits

“I had a passion to go back and train at Nairobits because I really felt that I needed to help the youth in my community,” she said. Now she is the project coordinator for three Nairobits centers for girls in some of Nairobi’s poorest neighborhoods.

Nairobits did not always have the girls’ centers. Although the nonprofit has operated coed classrooms for nearly a decade, it initially struggled with attracting equal numbers of boys and girls. That’s a problem in the general education system in Kenya overall.

Although enrollment numbers are fairly even at the primary school level, according to UNESCO, girls are 48 percent of the secondary school population, while boys are 51 percent. At the postsecondary level, girls’ participation drops further. Just 41 percent of young women continue their education after they complete high school, according to data from United Nations.

Education access advocates like Wambui attribute this disparity to a number of things, including child labor, early marriage, and pregnancy. But the overriding challenge is an economic one.

Although primary education is free in Kenya, schooling beyond that requires money. Boys’ education is prioritized because boys are seen as future providers for the family. Girls are expected to take on roles that are much more maternal—as caretakers for their siblings or as mothers to their own children. “They’re not encouraged to go to universities,” said Wambui. “They lack opportunities.”

Because they were not conditioned for success, girls often faltered in the classrooms. This was exacerbated by technology being a male-dominated field. So even when girls enrolled in the information computer technology courses at Nairobits, they still had trouble learning alongside their male peers.

“The girls were not that active because it was just a norm that ICT was for boys,” explained Wambui. “There’s a form of inferiority when it comes to class. I think that was one of the reasons we decided to open the girls’ center—to give a space where these girls can come, interact, share, learn, and be better. In the girls’ center, the girls work extra hard. You find they come to class on time. They come to class on time because they know this is the only the opportunity they have.”

Photo: Nairobits Trust/Facebook

Photo: Nairobits Trust/Facebook

The girls that Wambui supervises come from backgrounds that are similar to her own: They’re often low-income students who couldn’t afford other educational institutions. Some have never touched a computer, and some are young mothers.

They’re also battling cultural norms. “We have parents who are against them getting an education,” said Wambui. “We try to involve the parents by having parent meetings where we tell them the value of this education.” Wambui often goes to the girls’ homes, talks to their parents, and offers her mentorship.

Selling the importance of an ICT education, however, is difficult in a place where computers are not yet part of the everyday life of the community. But Wambui said she tells both the students and the parents that the girls are not just receiving an education in technology at Nairobits. They’re acquiring life skills that empower them in other parts of their lives.

“They have confidence. They’re able to talk. They’re able to express themselves. They’re able to say no,” she said. “At the end of the day, the challenges that they face, it weighs on me. I carry that with them, because I really want to see these girls go far.”

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