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Kenya's Maasai Girls Get Chance at Education
Diplomatic Pouch / July 29, 2010

By Larry Luxner

Caroline Kashinin Senteu desperately wanted to go to school — but her Maasai culture stood in the way.

The Maasai, one of the poorest tribes in Kenya, are not exactly champions of gender equality. According to Barbara Lee Shaw, founder of the Maasai Girls Education Fund, “women have a very hard life, they do all the work, build the houses, fetch the water, cook the food, wash the clothes, herd the goats. They do virtually everything, yet they have no right to an education.”

In fact, only 48 percent of Maasai girls enroll in primary school, only 5 percent will finish and less than 1 percent will reach secondary-school level. Some 90 percent are forced to undergo ritual female circumcision — also known as genital mutilation — and by age 15, they’re usually married to a man they didn’t choose, and bearing his children.

At the age of 12, Caroline certainly didn’t want this future for herself.

“I was born into a family of six children. I have two elder brothers,” said the determined young woman, speaking to a group of 30 people at a fund-raising event in Shaw’s northwest Washington home last week.

“Every morning, my brothers would wake up, go to school and come back in the evening,” said Caroline, who grew up in a Maasai village near Kenya’s border with Tanzania. “I was always curious about where my brothers went every morning. I kept following them every morning, and my mother would come and bring me back home. It reached the point where they saw I was not going to give up. So finally they let me go.”

Despite a lack of resources and objections from Caroline’s father — who ordered the rest of the family not to speak to her — the determined girl’s wish came true, thanks to a scholarship from MGEF. Today, Caroline is 25, has a degree in biology and works as a nurse at a hospital near her village — the same one that rejected education for girls.

“Most girls get circumcised and married, but something in my head wanted me to achieve something. I wanted to be powerful, but the only way was to be educated,” she said proudly. “At least today, I can stand up and compete with the world because of what the Maasai Girls Education Fund did in my life.”

It was a little girl named Ntanin that touched the heart of Shaw, a photographer who had traveled to Africa in the summer of 1999 to document Kenya’s Maasai culture. During her week traveling through the poverty-stricken Maasai region, home to around 300,000 people, Shaw spoke to locals, shared their food and listened to their concerns.

“Everybody was welcoming except the children, who were afraid of us. But one little girl would come out, walk up to me and bow her head. I would touch her head, then she’d run away,” Shaw recalled. “On my last day, we drove to every village to say good-bye. When we got to that little girl’s village, I asked what her name was. I told our host that I wanted to pay for her education, and that if I left this country without knowing who that little girl was, her face would haunt me for the rest of my life.”

That girl, Ntanin Tarayia, and another named Sempeyo Sarinke, became the first two recipients of the Maasai Girls Education Fund. “Instead of my photography career, I ended up being the founder of the MGEF,” she explained.

To date, MGEF has provided scholarships to 87 girls, six of whom have graduated from colleges or universities. In addition, the organization sponsors workshops on preventing teen pregnancy, HIV-AIDS and female genital mutilation.

“We teach them how to prevent pregnancy, and it’s all very explicit,” she said, estimating that nearly 1,500 Maasai girls have attended MGEF’s workshops.

“These girls have no right to choose when and if to marry, no right to choose her husband and no voice in family decisions,” said Shaw. “If her husband dies, she has no right to inherit his property. The only way out is to have economic independence, and be educated. That’s why we give scholarships to girls who would otherwise never enroll in school.”

According to Shaw, it is illegal under Kenyan law to circumcise a girl or marry anyone under the age of 16.

“But the government basically defers to tribal law,” she noted. “We’ve had cases where girls as young as 11 were about to be married off [and we offered scholarships to the girls]. If the family won’t accept the scholarship, the next level is the tribal chief. If the chief tells the father or uncle that the girl is going to school, that’s the end of the discussion. And if that doesn’t work, there’s the police — and we have them ready and lined up. But we’ve had to go to the police in only three cases.”

For more information on MGEF, visit http://www.maasaigirlseducation.org or call Shaw at (202) 237-0535.

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