Students in refugee camp in Kenya
Photo credit : Lorenzo Moscia

How cash transfers help girls continue their education in Kenya

In response to COVID-19, the Government of Kenya, much like other governments around the world, initiated lockdowns of businesses and schools and implemented curfews to help curb transmission. Despite these measures, in just a few weeks, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Kenya almost doubled, bringing the total at the time of writing to over 6,000.

Places like Turkana County will be particularly hard hit by the impacts of COVID-19 and related lockdowns. The county is one of the poorest in Kenya, with the lowest education outcomes. Among its population of more than 900,000 people, the county also hosts 190,000 refugees with 148,000 people living in Kakuma Refugee Camp and another 36,000 living in the nearby Kalobeyei Settlement.

Officials in Turkana County had been preparing for an outbreak, well in advance of its first (and so far only recorded) case, recognizing the devastating consequences and double disadvantage for refugees if an outbreak were to occur due to overcrowding, lack of health facilities, and limited resources to respond. Already, refugees have been disproportionately impacted by the crisis. Typically relying on daily wages or work in the informal sector, they are now faced with widespread job losses.

When economic pressures increase, and there are long periods of disruption in education, girls are at higher risk of not returning to school, in part, as a result of increased sexual and gender-based violence, including early and forced marriage. To reduce the economic pressure on families and encourage girls and young women to continue studying from home, we are expanding our cash transfer program in Kenya. This is in addition to the work we are doing to leverage our radio programming to share information on the importance of girls’ education in the COVID-19 context.

Why cash transfers?

Cash transfers are direct payments made to people in critical need and are a widely-used approach in the aid and development sectors. As with any development intervention, cash transfers may come with unintended consequences that need to be carefully monitored and mitigated. For example, any influx of cash in the household may upset power relations within the household and increase the risks of sexual and gender-based violence. However, they have overall shown to be effective and can be 25-30% more efficient than food aid because they give people a chance to spend their resources on what they need most.

Conditional cash transfers are also a commonly-used approach. They are based on the premise that the person or family receiving them will fulfill a requirement, usually related to education or health, such as enrolment in school or vaccinating children. The main objective of these types of transfer is to alleviate poverty, by providing people with an extra amount of income, while also incentivizing positive behaviours for longer-term results. Cash transfers build up human capital and are considered to be helpful in breaking a family’s poverty cycle from one generation to the next.

As Turkana continues to prepare for an outbreak of the virus,  school closures are expected to last until at least September 2020. Expanding our cash transfers is one way we are helping to ensure these important preventative efforts are not at the expense of improving access to and the quality of education, particularly for young girls.

How WUSC uses cash transfers in its education programming

With funding from UK AID, WUSC has been working on increasing girls’ access to education in Kenya since 2013 in the Kakuma and Dadaab Refugee Camps and their host communities. Building on this initial work and its successes, this year we expanded our programming with funding from Global Affairs Canada to Kalobeyei Settlement and its host community. Through this initiative, WUSC will also be providing additional support to help girls and young women successfully transition to work (either formally or self-employed) after they have completed their education.

We have been implementing conditional cash transfers as part of our girls’ education programming since 2018. We use conditional cash transfers in tandem with other complementary approaches to improving access to and quality of education for girls, such as remedial education, radio programming, community mobilization, psycho-social counselling, and life skills training.

Our past experience has shown that conditional cash transfers can be effective in a refugee context, although there are higher barriers to entry including poor financial services and infrastructure, and issues with legal registration of bank accounts. With these barriers in mind, we moved away from handing out direct goods to conditional cash transfers to reduce transaction costs and give families the autonomy to choose to allocate their money as they see fit.

Recipients of our transfers, 90% of whom are women, receive this money on the condition that they (in the case of overaged students) or their daughters attend school regularly. They are also eligible to receive “top-up” amounts for strong attendance. Families report that cash transfers have eased their financial pressures and made it easier for them to send their daughters to school despite the opportunity costs.

Adapting cash transfers to a COVID-19 context

As families around the world have discovered over the past several months, priorities and resources can evolve rapidly during times of crisis. In these contexts, cash transfers become an invaluable tool to ensuring families can quickly adapt to meet their immediate needs. Evidence from the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone shows that in addition to providing families with a source of income, cash transfers were also able to offer girls protection from the increased risk of physical and sexual violence during the pandemic.

To help ensure no girl is left behind during this current crisis, we have been working to expand the scope of our cash transfers in the Kalobeyei Settlement, reaching as many girls and young women as possible within our targeted age ranges, and increasing the transfer amount where possible. While we typically conduct a detailed, community-centered process to select the most vulnerable beneficiaries across a “Marginalization Index” (which assesses factors that affect girls’ vulnerability such as disability, poverty, and child-headed households), given the constraints of COVID-19, this process has been suspended temporarily, and parents have been informed that cash transfers will be distributed more widely until the end of 2020 to support as many families as possible.

We are working with our partners to continue to identify families at risk, and are using SMS and WhatsApp communication to ensure that recipients understand the purpose and timeframe of the conditional cash transfers. Transfers are being made monthly by bank transfers or mobile money, and WUSC staff will share hotline numbers that families can call with questions and concerns. Our current plan is to resume our standard conditional cash transfer system in 2021, conducting more detailed surveys to ensure that our limited resources are reaching those girls and young women most at risk of dropping out who face multiple disadvantages.

If the effects of COVID-19 on Kenya’s school system continue into 2021, WUSC will work with our partners to adapt our processes, ensuring that we are always prioritizing what matters most: the safety, education, and health of the vulnerable girls and young women that we serve in refugee and host communities.

With the provision of expanded conditional cash transfers, we know that despite the challenges that COVID-19 presents, girls will be better able to continue formal learning once schools reopen, and will still be able to benefit from the other complementary approaches that we provide. This will increase their access to better education opportunities, as well as the benefits from participating in the workforce when they are ready.

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