Educating and protecting girls in Kenya

Apr 03, 2013 04:30 PM

In traditional Maasai communities in Kenya, girls typically finish their education at primary level and are married after reaching puberty.

At this time, they are also expected to undergo a traditional circumcision ceremony, which signals their transition into adulthood. Female genital mutilation (FGM) became illegal in Kenya

in 2002, but the Maasai culture prides itself on keeping to its traditions and the practice is still widespread. Maasai men will often refuse to marry any girl who has not been cut, believing it helps to keep girls chaste and then faithful as wives, thus protecting the community against the spread of diseases such as HIV/AIDS.

The immediate health dangers are now more widely appreciated and in the main, the women who carry out the circumcision will ensure they use separate and clean blades for each girl. Some communities even allow for a symbolic incision to be made instead. But generally there is resistance to change, especially since parents and practitioners are never prosecuted.

Nevertheless, the views of the outside world are slowly beginning to gain an influence, particularly as more Maasai youngsters enrol in state education schools, where they learn about the risks associated with FGM. And a few educated Maasai are beginning to speak out publicly against the practice.

One such speaker is Kakenya Ntaiya, who is shown on the Guardian website talking about her life growing up in a Maasai community. In a very moving address given at TedxMidAltantic, Ntaiya explains that the only way she could gain her father’s agreement to let her attend high school was to undergo the female circumcision ceremony. Later on, after persuading the male elders of her community to support her further study in America, she learnt more about FGM and its illegality.

Wanting to give something back to her home community, Ntaiya has helped to set up a local school for girls where previously there wasn’t one. The school will accept older children who have not yet had the chance to study. And just as importantly, it helps pupils to understand their rights and not to accept any kind of oppression because they are women. Ntaiya is proud to say her school has already changed the lives of 125 young girls and shows pictures of some of their smiling faces. She ends her inspirational talk by exhorting the young Americans in the audience to go into their own communities and be leaders for change, to ensure a better and more peaceful world for their children and grandchildren.

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