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WOMEN have always been behind in history, says Dr Kakenya Ntaiya, CNN Top 10 Hero and one of “Newsweek” magazine’s “150 Women who Shake the World”.
“We have had to fight so many battles to be able to have the same opportunities as men and not be defined by our households and to make a bigger contribution in the world,” she says.
In the lead up to International Women’s Week the founder of a ground-breaking girls’ school in rural Kenya is visiting Canberra as part of a national speaking and fundraising tour.
For Kakenya, International Women’s Day, on March 8, is a time to pause to reflect on how far women have come.
“There is so much we need to achieve. International Women’s Day unites us – but there’s still so much to do,” she says
“Female genital mutilation still happens in my country. It is about control, traumatising girls and making them not equal. We need to do more.
“I came from nothing. I slept on the floor, walked barefoot,” Kakenya says of her childhood as a Maasai village girl. It was a tough childhood, but not uncommon.
“I never wanted my mother’s life. My father was abusive whenever he was home. I was the oldest child out of eight children and expected to help my mother raise them. It was a hard life and I knew that if I got married it would be harder,” she says.
Life as a Maasai girl is entirely based at home – washing, cleaning, milking cows and collecting firewood. Harmful traditional practices such as child marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM) are common, with 80 per cent of women in Kakenya’s community having been cut and one in three girls married before they turned 18. Only 17 per cent of girls complete primary school.
“Most girls dreamt of being a wife and mother at a young age, it was the thing to do. I knew I needed an education to have a different life,” says Kakenya, who was engaged at five.
She experienced female genital mutilation as a young teenager in preparation for marriage. Her life was set to follow the traditional path of ending school to become a wife and mother, but Kakenya dared to dream. She negotiated with her father to return to school after undergoing FGM.
Kakenya finished high school and was accepted to attend university in the US, gaining a PhD in education from the University of Pittsburgh.
It was when she went to college that she began to dream of opening a school for girls in her hometown. She says she could see more clearly the hardships endured by women in her community and how life for her old school friends was so hard.
“It was then I knew things had to change. And that education would be the key,” says Kakenya.
The Kakenya Center of Excellence, an all-girls boarding school in the remote Maasai village of Enoosaen, was opened in 2009. The girls are protected from arranged marriages and FGM and encouraged to dream big.
“I dreamt of creating a place where numbers of girls come in, they are empowered and make an impact on the world,” says Kakenya.
“I started with 10 girls and now we have educated over 350 girls.
“Now my first students have made their way to finish high school and are ready to start university and tertiary studies this year.
“This is where supporters in Australia are helping make the dream come true – sending these young women to university is critical to launching them into the world, helping them become something in society and making a change in the world. To have a job, support their families and community.”
The Women for Change scholarship program has ensured each of the 24 high-school leavers will attend university or tertiary studies. Three will attend universities in Sydney.
Women for Change is a committee of the cricketing charity, the LBW Trust, with a mission to empower women through education. Kakenya’s visit to Australia last year saw the community donating to support the tertiary scholarships of all 24 students. This year, Women for Change hopes to support the next cohort of students to transition to tertiary studies.
“Change is happening in my community, girls are not doing all the work every day at home and are now focusing on their school work instead,” says Kakenya.
“They are being given a different perspective to become what they want to. The biggest change that has happened is acceptance that this is a different generation of women who are not going to have their mother’s life.
“And when the fathers see girls being successful and transitioning to university or college, they want that for their daughters.”
Kakenya’s universal message to women is simple – if you believe it, it can happen.
“We all want the best for ourselves but sometimes we get frightened or scared. My message is to persist. You will be amazed by people who will believe in you and help you achieve your goals.”
“I say: ‘If Kakenya can do it, anyone can’.”
Dr Kakenya Ntaiya speaks at Ernst and Young’s International Women’s Day event on March 5. More information and to donate at womenforchange.org.au