Activist seeks to break down educational barriers


For millions of children around the world, going to school is not a given.

That’s the message of Mary Njoroge, Kenya’s former director of Basic Education, who stopped in Indianapolis to help kick off the Global Campaign for Education’s Week of Action, April 21-27. Her two-week tour of the United States is highlighting the need for U.S. support of the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goal to achieve universal primary education by 2015.

Hosted by grass-roots advocacy group RESULTS, Njoroge made the most of her short time in Indy. She met with the staff of Sen. Dick Lugar, gave interviews and convened a public conversation at Earth House Coffee and Books Saturday.

Wherever she goes, she talks about the connection between poverty and educational barriers. Primary school opens the door to secondary education and further training, she says, which in turn enables people to participate in the economic development of their countries.

In 2003, Njoroge oversaw Kenya’s Abolishment of School Fees Initiative, a groundbreaking program that resulted in a million new students entering primary school overnight. The program became a model for other developing nations.

Now she wants to break down the educational barriers that affect 72 million children worldwide, 33 million in Africa alone. Njoroge says impoverished children are kept from education for many reasons: school fees, the cost of uniforms and books, child labor, HIV/AIDS and lack of family support. Gender disparities make educating girls a challenge in many areas.

With the global target of ensuring universal access to primary school only seven years away, there is much more work to be done, even in Kenya, Njoroge says. “If we are going to ensure education for all, we cannot ignore those who are hard to reach,” she says. Providing access to girls, orphans and children with special needs is critical.

“Though schools are open to children, they need more than just sitting in a classroom,” she points out, citing the extreme poverty of many youngsters for whom food and health care is a dire need.

A teacher shortage exacerbates the issue. Because of International Monetary Fund policies that cap the number of public workers in countries receiving development assistance, Kenya has not been able to hire new teachers to meet the increased demand for education. Njoroge is calling on Congress to pressure the IMF to cancel these restrictions, which result in class sizes sometimes exceeding 100 children.

“The kids are there in school but we need to ensure the quality of programs,” she says. “We need a sensible, appropriate teacher pupil ratio.”

She is also calling for greater U.S. financial support of global education. A bill currently making its way through Congress, the Education for All Act, would provide $1 billion funding, scaling up to $3 billion by 2012 — the U.S. share of resources needed to achieve the international targets for education.

“Developed countries have a moral responsibility to help these countries reach the goals we set together for 2015,” she says.

“My sentiment has been, if you leave some communities behind, you’re forever looking behind you. We need to empower everybody so we have a safe society.”



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