Engaging Gatekeepers to Champion Girls’ Education

Symposium reveals winning strategies against gender discrimination 

At the age of seven, when confronted with the Maasai tradition of female genital mutilation (FGM), Kakenya Ntaiya struck a deal with her father — she would only submit to it if she could return to school. Feeling that there was no way to refuse such a highly valued rite of passage in her community, Kakenya made the best of a dreadful predicament.

According to UNICEF, many Maasai girls drop out of school to be married after undergoing FGM. Along with child marriage and long school commutes, the burden of FGM is one of many barriers faced by girls in rural communities who seek an education. At the “Girls Education Research and Policy Symposium” hosted by the Brookings Institute, program implementers, researchers, and activists like Kakenya came together in Washington, D.C. to discuss how to overcome these barriers to education and reach the most marginalized girls.

While many girls in Kakenya’s community suffered the fate she was desperate to avoid, Kakenya’s parents allowed her to continue her education. She went on to get her PhD, and in 2009, she opened the Kakenya Center for Excellence, a boarding school for Maasai girls. Founding the school was a three-year process in which Kakenya discovered that a key to overcoming barriers to Maasai girls’ education is to engage powerful actors and allies in the community, like elders and spiritual leaders, using “their own language.”

Across all the presentations at the symposium, connecting with community leaders was commonly acknowledged as an important ingredient in improving access to education. These “key gatekeepers,” as described by Damaris Seleina Parsitau, a Brookings Echidna Global Scholar, are critical in countering the objections expressed by Maasai elders about allowing girls to pursue a formal education. For instance, an elder might not understand an outsider’s argument that girls have a ‘right’ to an education. Therefore, interventions to increase girls’ access to education need to be respectful of cultural and social norms. As Damaris explained, “if we engage elders with cultural sensitivity, understand their fears to girls getting an education, we’ll get somewhere.”

Kakenya saw the positive results of using cultural sensitivity when speaking to elders in her community about the Maasai girls’ school she wanted to start. Over the course of three years, she met with elders to get their blessing and support for the school and expose the detrimental impacts of FGM on a girl’s health. These conversations enabled elders to understand the value of education for girls and the consequences of FGM, to such an extent that they even contributed land for the school.

In Kenya, Maasai have much lower rates of education compared to the national average. According to Tobik (2009), as most Maasai live in isolated, rural areas, 60 percent of children do not attend formal schools, with cultural norms making girls’ rates of attendance even lower. Today, 300 girls attend Kakenya’s school, which is considered a significant step towards increasing Maasai girls’ access to education.

The school also challenges harmful Maasai customs. To meet the basic requirements for enrollment, girls must not undergo FGM and must delay marriage until they finish high school. As Kakenya explained, “school is the most powerful tool that you can give a girl, and through the school, I am making a social change within my community.” She is achieving this change within the community one student at a time.

School is the most powerful tool that you can give a girl, and through the school, I am making a social change within my community.

The success of engaging gatekeepers to invest in girls’ education can be seen not only with the Maasai, but within Indian communities as well. Armene Modi, another presenter at the symposium who is also a Brookings Echidna Global Scholar founded Ashta No Kai (ANK), a nonprofit whose mission is to educate and empower rural women and girls in Pune, India. Similar to the Maasai, girls in India experience barriers to education including child marriage and patriarchal expectations regarding their role in society. Data in a 2011 census on child marriage revealed that one in every three married women was a child bride, and rural parents spend a disproportionate amount on boys’ education in comparison to what they spend on their daughters.

Armene attributes much of ANK’s success in increasing girls’ access to education to its focus on mothers. By improving mothers’ livelihoods and hosting workshops to raise awareness about gender equality, ANK earned their trust and made influential allies. Mothers recognized  the importance of education in preventing their daughters from reliving the cycle of poverty they themselves had experienced. One mother with whom Armene worked described her realization of the importance of her daughter’s education, stating, “If you are uneducated, it is as if you have only one eye. My life, my generation, was full of darkness, but I have to make sure my daughters get a good education. It is my duty.”

If you are uneducated, it is as if you have only one eye. My life, my generation, was full of darkness, but I have to make sure my daughters get a good education. It is my duty.

As Kakenya and Aremene’s experiences demonstrate, overcoming barriers to girls’ education is an endeavor that requires the engagement of gatekeepers at the community level. Access to those gatekeepers requires the trust of the local community and cultural sensitivity. Kakenya advised that for those interested in supporting efforts to bring education to the most marginalized girls, “where you can make a difference is by partnering with local change-makers and finding those role models. You can partner to amplify their voice.”

Feature image: ‘Maasai herding,’ a painting by Kahare Miano (photo credit: ILRI/Dave Elsworth)

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