Kenyan schools entrepreneur Dr Kakenya Ntaiya made an extraordinary bargain with her father at age seven — she would undergo female genital mutilation in exchange for an education.
Kenyan schools entrepreneur and international women’s rights advocate, Dr Kakenya Ntaiya, made an extraordinary bargain at the age of just seven.
The Masai schoolgirl was so determined to continue her education that she made a deal with her father that she would undergo female genital mutilation in exchange for finishing her education.
“I wanted to continue with school because my mother was denied an education and she always told us if she went to school she would have been a different person, so I talked to my dad and told him I can only go through the genital mutilation if he lets me go back to school,” she told The World Today.
Dr Ntaiya said it was routine for 12-year-old girls in her village to be married, and that she knew of some as young as nine still being forced to marry.
She said many would die or become permanently disabled after bearing children at such a young age.
“Imagine a 12 year old getting married. That is the time that they’re supposed to be in school. That’s the time they’re supposed to dream big, but you’re told ‘here is a husband, go and have children’,” she said.
Dr Ntaiya, who is in Sydney this week as the keynote speaker at Australia’s National Leadership in Schools Conference, also saw her father abuse and beat her mother — a life she refused to accept.
She said her father only agreed to her deal because he did not expect her to recover from the procedure right away and possibly not at all.
But while the girls undergoing the genital cutting were meant to heal without medical help, her mother made sure she had proper nursing.
“We were healed within a month and he was quite shocked. He didn’t have a say. He had to keep his promise and I went to school,” Dr Ntaiya said.
Engaged as long as she can remember
Dr Ntaiya’s plan was to escape the life of child marriage. She said she had been engaged for as long as she could remember.
“Because when I was young, [about five], I was always told that my husband just passed by,” she said.
Parents in her Maasai community married their girls off young in exchange for cows, which they saw as invaluable.
“So most of the families they will take the cows from their girls’ dowry and then educate the boys,” Dr Ntaiya said.
The belief was that securing a girl’s future meant finding a husband and starting a family.
‘Probably’ the only Masai woman with a PhD
After she graduated, Dr Ntaiya was accepted at a Kenyan teacher’s college and a university in the United States.
She went on to gain a doctorate in education from the US and has now set up a school for girls in Kenya and a foundation to draw attention to the dangers of child marriage and female genital mutilation.
“I went through the genital mutilation not knowing what it was,” she said.
“I was told it’s what will make me a woman. I didn’t know that it’s something that is done very… it’s horrible, you are cut, your genitalia is cut, no anaesthesia, you bleed and some people die out of it.
“I’m lucky, I only fainted and came back to life.
“My education has enabled me to learn about it and now I stand against it and stand so that no other girl can go through that.”
Dr Ntaiya places two conditions on attendance at her school.
“One, no girl will be mutilated. That’s something that the parents have to agree to, they might not like it initially but after we work with them, we train them, we talk to them about what actually female genital cutting does to the life of a girl. Parents — the fathers, have joined in,” she said.
“Of all the girls we have right now, 235 girls, none of them will ever be mutilated.
“The other [condition] is that they will not be married until they finish high school or beyond, until they’re adults.”
Dr Ntkaiya said she is probably the only Masai woman with a PhD, but in the future there will be more.
“Over the last two years we have sent 55 girls to the best national schools, secondary schools in the country. I know that at least 75 per cent of them will make it to a good university,” she said.
“I’m trying now to mentor young women to get an education beyond just high school or a primary school.
“To go to university and also experience what an education really means to somebody, brings liberation, I mean it just makes you an independent person.”
Dr Ntkaiya said there had been some resistance to her school in Kenya from those who wanted to maintain the tradition of genital mutilation and marrying girls off early.
She said her frank sexual education for her girls had also sparked opposition from western educators.
But she said she stayed focused on the positives, and that many men had learned the benefits of educating girls through their daughter’s attendance at her school.
Dr Ntaiya’s message to western educators is to stop coddling school children and instead to see them as future leaders.
“When we look at kids we look at them as children, we don’t look at them as the next prime minister,” she said.
“But if we start changing the way we look at them, and look at them as the future, it just changes the whole concept of how you teach.”