Gender differences in the schooling experiences of adolescents in low-income countries: the case of Kenya

Stud Fam Plann. 1998 Jun;29(2):167-84.


Although a growing proportion of young people is spending some time in school between puberty and marriage, little research on education in developing countries has been focused on adolescent issues. This article examines the school environment in Kenya and the ways it can help or hinder adolescents. Gender differences are considered with a view toward illuminating some factors that may present particular obstacles or opportunities for girls. Using both qualitative and quantitative data, 36 primary schools in rural areas in three districts of Kenya are studied. These schools are chosen to reflect the spectrum of school quality in the country. The focus in this study is on primary schools because the majority of adolescents in school attend primary school. In these schools, where considerable variation in performance and parental educational status is found, disorganization coexists with strict punishment, minimal comforts are lacking, learning materials are scare, learning is by rote, and sex education is not provided. In the primary-school-leaving exam, girls' performance is poorer than that of boys. Teachers' attitudes and behavior reveal lower expectations for adolescent girls, traditional assumptions about gender roles, and a double standard about sexual activity.

PIP: Understanding of the experiences of African adolescents requires an analysis of their schooling environment. The present study used quantitative and qualitative methods to assess adolescents' experiences at 36 primary schools in three districts of Kenya: Nyeri, Nakuru, and Kilifi. The percentages of adolescents 12-18 years of age currently attending primary school were 79%, 81%, and 94%, respectively, in these three districts. The focus of education in primary school is on preparation for the Kenyan Certificate of Primary Education exam that determines whether a student can progress to secondary school. School environments tended to be characterized by disorganization, strict punishment, scarce learning materials, rote learning, and sexual harassment of female students. Girls score lower than boys on the exam and have a higher drop-out rate. Teachers' attitudes and behaviors express lower expectations for adolescent girls than boys, traditional assumptions about gender roles, and a double standard regarding sexual behavior. Although schools that had a history of higher test scores tended to employ more female teachers than low-performing schools, they were no more gender-equitable. The lack of encouragement Kenyan girls receive in primary school limits their incentives to continue their education and to delay marriage and childbearing.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Child
  • Developing Countries*
  • Education / standards*
  • Educational Status
  • Female
  • Gender Identity*
  • Health Knowledge, Attitudes, Practice
  • Humans
  • Kenya
  • Male
  • Observation
  • Poverty / psychology*
  • Prejudice
  • Psychology, Adolescent*
  • Rural Population*
  • Social Environment
  • Students / psychology*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires