Kenya faces obstacles in aiding its poorest children

For two years, 11-year-old Simon Maingi has called the four stark dormitories of a juvenile detention facility his home.

But his life is a distant cry from that of your average fifth-grader - in or out of juvenile detention.

He and the other 200 children living here at the Nairobi Juvenile Remand Home have no games, no teachers, and no textbooks.

"We want to study but our parents don't have money," he says, fingering the dirty sleeve of his government-issued shirt. It is his explanation for why, instead of learning to read, he stares at blank walls, waiting for his case to come before a judge.

After two decades of excruciating economic decline in Kenya, juvenile delinquency has hit an all-time high, child-advocacy groups say, reflecting a wider crisis in education that has left a growing number of children out of school and on the streets. Searching for money and amusement, an estimated 125,000 children spend their days scavenging, begging, and pickpocketing in Kenya's towns and cities - three times the number in 1990.

Kenyan officials blame this crisis, in part, on a tough program initiated by international donors almost a decade ago which forced parents to share the costs of basic services like education.

The cost of entering the first grade climbed from a nominal fee to as high as $75 - a huge chunk of the average yearly household income here of $306 - despite the fact that schools are officially free.

"Parents have been finding it very difficult to cope, not only with basic needs, but practically everything," says Sam ole Kwallah, Kenya's director of Children's Services. Since the early '90s, Mr. Kwallah says, his office has fought an uphill battle to get children off the streets, back to their parents, or into juvenile institutions that help them.

Despite these grim circumstances, there are a few glimmers of hope.

Thanks in part to initial government efforts, primary-school enrollment is up this year. According to Education Ministry statistics, enrollment is creeping toward 88 percent - from a low of 76 percent in 1995. Former education minister Eric Ogwang has also set up the Children's Legal Action Network to help poor children - otherwise ignored - get out of juvenile detention and back into school.

But the financial woes of Kenya remain a stumbling block for education reformers like Mr. Ogwang. Although most donors agree that chipping in for the cost of education has been hard on the poor, IMF officials say lack of planning and mismanagement not IMF policy - make Kenyan elementary schools some of the most expensive in Africa.

"Even if the IMF did not exist at all, Kenya would have had to do something," says Festus Osunsade, the IMF representative here, pointing out that Kenya has more teachers per pupil than any other country on the continent and pays out 20 percent of its revenue in teachers' salaries. "There are no resources to finance it. Something has to give."

Mr. Osunsade says that plans are under way to make education more accessible to the poor, but for now, children's-advocacy groups lament that the same poverty forcing children out of schools ushers them through a revolving door of inadequately supplied jails and juvenile detention centers that mimic adult prisons. Citing shoe-string budgets, vocational classes have been cut at most institutions. A menu of meat has turned into a daily stream of mashed corn and beans.

Teenagers charged with criminal offenses as serious as murder are crowded into bleak dormitories with young children in "protective custody."

Although juvenile remand homes are meant to be places of "temporary safety" for children to live until their parents are located, the tendency for many to stay months at a time - or even to "grow up" in juvenile remand, re-arrested and returned for years on end - leads some social workers to admit that the system has "a lot of failures."

Since few resources are available to solve the problems that brought children to the streets in the first place, some human rights groups describe the children's arrests as "cosmetic" - keeping Kenya's biggest eyesore out of the pubic view during high-profile international conferences and the tourist season.

Routine police sweeps don't help children, says Evelyn Ogwang, a lawyer with the African Network for the Prevention and Protection Against Child Abuse. Rather, she says, they "criminalize [the children's] situations."

"In the past, it was vagrancy," Ms. Ogwang says, referring to the criminal offense that most children were charged with before the recent repeal of a colonial-era law that prohibited Africans from loitering in town. "[Now] they are taken to court for being in need of protection and discipline."

For lasting change, Ogwang says what really needs to come to pass is a coherent government policy on children that makes schools affordable for everyone.

"Maybe in the 1970s, when education was easily accessible to a majority of kids, there wasn't such a problem," she says.

"But today, it's a vicious cycle."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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