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Gender Adapted Aspirations and Achievement: An Examination of the Substantive Freedom to Pursue Education Among Adolescent Girls in Rural Kenya


Despite decades of effort to improve education globally, girls in rural Kenya experience ongoing shortfalls in secondary school completion. Although dropout rates are high for all students, girls face social challenges related to gendered social processes that modify their aspirations and gendered structures that effectively limit their substantive freedom to pursue education. Gendered social processes are slow acting, can be subtle or overt, and can either enable or constrain one’s aspirations. Enabling processes are interpersonal words and actions that reinforce or encourage the expansion of one’s aspirations, while constraining processes dimmish, discount or discourage one’s aspirations leading a contraction of aspirations over time. Gendered structures consist of rules, norms and laws, as well as societal infrastructure that affect women and men differently. They can validate and promote gendered social processes but are not interpersonal. Using a gender-adapted modification of Caroline Hart’s aspirations theory that draws on social reproduction theory and the capabilities approach, I examine gendered social processes that alter girls’ aspirations over time through repeated encounters in three fields of social interaction, the school, the home, and the community (Bourdieu, 1977; Hart, 2012; Sen, 1999). I then examine gendered structures within the school, the community, and the home that limit girls’ ability to convert aspirations into achieved functionings by creating conflict between girls’ educational attainment and other valued aspects of well-being or restricting to girls’ ability to access education. The analysis documents the experiences and voices of adolescent girls in Western Kenya using semi-structured interviews conducted in the summer of 2019 at 4 schools across grades 8 and 9. The findings suggest that adolescent girls in rural Kenya face substantial gendered barriers to educational completion that manifest through gendered social processes that are legitimized and strengthened by gendered structures. These barriers are best addressed by local interventions that specifically attend to the needs of women and girls and that are inclusive of men, boys, and the community. Efforts to achieve social transformation for girls that fail to include males and the community are not likely to be effective.

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