Inspirational Woman Interview: Kakenya Ntaiya

Kakenya Ntaiya is a Kenyan educator, feminist and social activist. She is the founder and president of the Kakenya Center for Excellence, a nonprofit organization that has built the first primary boarding school for girls in the Maasai village of Enoosaen. The Kakenya Center opened in May 2009 with 32 students and has since enrolled 318 girls in grades four through eight. Ntiaya holds an undergraduate degree from Randolph-Macon Woman’s College and has a Doctorate in Education from the University of Pittsburgh. For her efforts with the Kakenya Center for Excellence, Kakenya has received numerous awards including Vital Voices Global Leadership Award, CNN Top Ten Hero of the Year, and the Global Women’s Rights Award from the Feminist Majority Foundation.

What is your background?

Kakenya Ntaiya: I grew up in a small Maasai village in rural Kenya called Enoosaen, located in Narok County. My father was a police officer and frequently away from home for long periods of time. While he was gone, my mother worked very, very hard to take care of our animals, our land, our home, and our family. When my father would come home, he wasted all the money on drinking with his friends. He would beat my mother. This behavior was considered acceptable in my culture. Women could not own property and had no rights. Yet these aspects of the culture never seemed right to me, and I wanted a different life than my mother. I was driven to pursue education originally because I wanted to be a teacher. My teachers wore nice clothing and their job – from my point of view – was simply to write on a chalkboard. This seemed much easier than the exhausting chores I did every day after classes and early in the mornings. My mother was supportive of my desire to continue with education. She believed in me and understood my fight. My father was less understanding, because it was important to him that I undergo female genital mutilation (FGM). This practice was considered a necessary rite of passage into womanhood in my community and it signaled that girls were ready for marriage. It is carried out when a girl reaches puberty. When my time came, I told my father that I would only go through the cutting if I could continue with school afterward, rather than getting married. It was so socially important to him to have a daughter who was cut that he agreed to the arrangement. I went on to high school and eventually became the first girl from my community to go to the US for college. After I completed my undergraduate degree at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, I earned my PhD in education from the University of Pittsburgh.

You are the Founder of the Kakenya Center for Excellence, a nonprofit organization focused on improving access to education for girls in Kenya. What inspired you to found the Kakenya Center for Excellence and what distinguishes the Kakenya Center from other nonprofit organizations with similar missions?

Kakenya Ntaiya: When I was earning my degrees in the US, I would occasionally return to Kenya to visit my community. Each time I went, more and more girls I knew were dropping out of school, being married off, and suffering the consequences of FGM as they became young mothers. I heard tragic stories about some of these girls and the painful experiences they endured. The girls who had sat beside me in primary school had multiple children by the time I finished high school. Meanwhile, through education, a whole new world had opened up to me. I had learned about human rights. I had learned that FGM was illegal in Kenya and that there were entire books written about this practice. I learned about child rights and international organizations working to end FGM and early marriage. I had been able to forge a pathway to education for myself, and I decided that I needed to use that education to benefit the other girls still in my community. I wanted to give them the chance I had fought for – to be educated, to have the world opened up for them.

KCE’s approach is unique in that it is completely girl-centered. We believe that by giving the girls themselves the information and skills they need to take control of their futures, they will begin to foment broader social change. The girls are taught to be their own advocates. KCE takes a holistic approach, considering all aspects of a girl’s needs, including academic, social, emotional, and physical. KCE also emphasizes nontraditional educational experiences, such as field trips and cultural experiences. Our students all have the opportunity to leave the village – sometimes for the first time in their lives – allowing them to visit major cities, visit historical, cultural, and political sites, and to see where education can lead them. KCE works hard to guide girls into high schools with high academic standards and to continue to support them throughout their secondary education. Our goal is not only to see girls succeed academically and stay in school, but to equip our girls to be leaders and changemakers in their community.

Can you tell us about some of the Kakenya Center’s specific programs that address women’s economic independence and physical health?

Kakenya Ntaiya: Our Health and Leadership training program is a skills and rights-based training experience that reaches thousands of marginalized youth each year. The goal is to give them information about their bodies, their rights, and the harmful consequences of FGM, forced early marriage, early pregnancies, and risky sexual behaviors in order to promote physical well-being for adolescent girls. We train the girls on self defense against sexual assault and teach them where to go for help if they feel unsafe. We provide a safe space for them to ask questions and share experiences with each other and with our professional trainers.

Another KCE program is called the Network for Excellence. It’s a support network for girls who have graduated from our boarding school and are attending high schools around the country. This program has many components, including mentorship, scholarships, and academic support, but it also includes life skills training. During academic holiday periods, the girls gather at our boarding school campus and attend training sessions on financial literacy, career guidance, study skills, and more. The trainings enhance the girls’ academic progress and keep them on the path to eventual economic independence as well-educated, confident women.

From your experiences, what are some of the best practices and strategies that have helped increase girls’ education rates in Kenya?

Kakenya Ntaiya: Maasai girls in rural Kenya face many challenges to continuing with their education past puberty. They often must risk long, dangerous walks to and from school, they are expected to perform taxing household chores when they return home in the evening, and their families are rarely concerned with their academic success. In Maasai culture, girls have traditionally been valued only as wives and mothers. So, girls’ education is not a priority for family and community investment. About 75% of Maasai girls still undergo FGM, are married off, and drop out of school at a young age. The best strategies for increasing girls’ education rates in communities that place these types of cultural burdens on girls is to identify the various factors that keep girls from attending school and address them all. This is why my first mission was to build an all-girls’ boarding school. If the girls live on campus, they don’t have to make the dangerous journey to and from school. They are eating nutritious food, they have access to menstrual hygiene supplies, and they have time to study instead of spending all evening doing chores. Because we have addressed each of these needs, our girls are matching and even surpassing their male counterparts in their test scores. This is changing people’s minds; fathers have told me that they never knew girls could do math until their daughters came to KCE and began to excel in their math class. We also require parents to sign agreements when they enroll their daughter at our school, committing to us that they will not subject their girls to FGM or marriage while they are attending KCE. This removes the threat of these traditions from the students’ minds and allows them to focus on their studies.

Previously, you served as the first youth advisor to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). Can you tell us more about your experiences with the UNFPA and some of the most valuable lessons you’ve learned?

Kakenya Ntaiya: After graduating from Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, I took a position as Youth Advisor for the UN Population Fund, UNFPA. In that role, I traveled around the world to speak out about issues affecting youth, especially young girls, hindering them from reaching their full potential. I spoke a lot about female genital mutilation and early forced marriage and the desperate need to end these terrible practices. Through these experiences, I learned about how devastatingly prevalent these issues are around the world. But I also learned about the work of the global human rights community to change the story for girls in these situations and how many brilliant people are doing great things on behalf of girls and women. I was encouraged and motivated to do my part, too. While leading KCE, I still believe it is important to find ways to work together with other organizations and to learn from each other’s successes and challenges as part of a global movement to protect the rights of women and girls.

On a personal level, why is women’s empowerment important to you?

Kakenya Ntaiya: I have seen too often what happens when a woman is made to feel powerless. I have seen so many girls give up their dreams and their potential because of cultural expectations. I saw my mother go through so much abuse and hardship. I have seen widows rejected by their families and treated as outcasts because they have no husband. When women are not empowered, it is a loss for everyone: their children, their husbands, their communities, and all of humanity.

The most rewarding thing for me is to see the transformation in the girls whose lives are changed by our boarding school. It is so powerful and moving to see a girl who has never been told that she has worth transformed into a confident, determined young lady who believes that she deserves to create her own story. Our girls want to become lawyers, doctors, politicians, and educators; they all want to make a difference.

Can you talk about one woman who has impacted your life?

Kakenya Ntaiya: There are many women who have impacted my life. The girls we serve in our community inspire me. Their determination for a better future gives me great hope for the future, too. I am inspired by many other women who stand with me as I work for change in my community. But the woman who has impacted my life the most is my mother. She worked so hard to give me and my siblings the opportunity to go to school. She used to tell me that she had to drop out of school much too young, but that she had male classmates who went on to become high government officials. “I was smarter than them,” she would tell me, “I could have done that.” She wished she had been able to continue with her studies. So she made it a priority to instill an appreciation for learning in us and to try to give us that chance.

What are your favorite books, websites, films and resources related to education and international development?

Kakenya Ntaiya: One of my favorite resources with lots of great information about girls’ education and early marriage is Girls Not Brides. The Girl Generation website is also a great website for learning about organizations working to end FGM across Africa. A film that I find inspirational and educational about these issues is Girl Rising.

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