By Seema Jalan
What if a longstanding tradition in your community was also a painful, dangerous procedure that put your health and rights — and even your life — at risk? For the more than 200 million girls and women around the world who have undergone some form of female genital mutilation (FGM), this is a painful reality.
According to the World Health Organization, FGM refers to all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. It is a clear violation of human rights, and for many girls and women who undergo FGM, the practice causes immediate and long-term health complications, and sometimes death. For Dr. Kakenya Ntaiya, founder of Kakenya’s Dream, it was a turning point.
I interviewed Kakenya on her work as an educator and social activist working to challenge traditions in her Kenyan village:
Seema Jalan: Tell us about what you experienced as a young girl in Kenya.
Dr. Kakenya Ntaiya: As a young girl, I loved going to school. At home, I worked very hard to help my mother farm, cook, clean, and take care of my younger brothers and sisters. But when I went to school, I could focus on learning. I looked up to my teachers too, who were smart and nicely dressed. I dreamt that I would be a teacher someday and escape the hard life we were living.
FGM threatened to end that dream. In my community, every girl was supposed to go through FGM, marking the end of her childhood and education, and the beginning of her preparation for marriage. No one told me any details, only that it was essential to bring me status and respectability.
When I learned it was my turn to go through FGM, I negotiated with my father to let me return to school afterwards or else I would run away. This was unprecedented, but he eventually agreed. My mother brought a nurse to care for me afterwards, so I healed quickly and was able to return to school quickly. From that moment forward, I fought to continue my education.
SJ: How did this experience lead you to where you are today?
KN: I kept pushing boundaries and eventually earned my community’s support to be the first woman from the village to go to college in the U.S. Unlike the men who had left, I promised to would come back and help. Then, while getting my bachelor’s degree and then my Ph.D., I learned about human rights and international law. I learned that I had a right to go to school all along and that FGM was illegal in Kenya. At first I was angry, but this new knowledge sparked something inside of me.
Each time I went back home, I saw girls’ lives were unchanged. They were still undergoing FGM, leaving school, and marrying early despite all the laws and rights I had studied. I felt a responsibility to share what I learned and to ensure no other girl suffered. I knew I had found my way to give back to the community. That’s when I started Kakenya’s Dream.
I’ll never forget our first enrollment day for the boarding school program. I had hoped for 10 girls to apply, but 100 girls came. Today, we have helped over 300 girls receive their education, free from FGM and child marriage, and educated more than 8,00 young boys and girls about FGM.
SJ: What are your ambitions for Kakenya’s Dream in 2018 and beyond?
KN: 2018 is an especially exciting year for Kakenya’s Dream. We are expanding all three of our programs: the Kakenya Center for Excellence all-girls boarding school, the Network for Excellence secondary and postsecondary mentorship and scholarship program, and our Health and Leadership Trainings for boys and girls in the community. Year after year, we are forced to turn away girls who wish to receive our services because we don’t have the capacity. This year, I am determined to change that for good. We are building a second, K-12 campus and so much more. I encourage any who are interested to sign up for our newsletter at www.kakenyasdream.org.
My vision is a world where every girl is able to achieve her full potential, free from FGM and child marriage. We are not there yet, but the growth to come in 2018 will bring us closer.
SJ: How can the world act to end FGM and empower the next generation of girls?
KN: Too often, efforts to end FGM are short-term, external interventions that fail to see the broader context that allows FGM to continue. Our approach is different. We understand that to end FGM, the whole community must own the project and the whole girl must be empowered all the way to adulthood. This type of program requires serious investment, but the payoff is worth it.
My own story and the success of our programs at Kakenya’s Dream is a testament to this holistic, grassroots power. Kakenya’s Dream started saying “no” to FGM almost 10 years ago. Since then, community attitudes towards FGM have transformed. Girls are saying no for themselves, and so are parents, leaders, and boy allies. For the first time this year, we have a group of graduates from our program going to college and not one has undergone FGM. They are defining a new normal where girls are thriving and contributing to a robust community. Everyone wants to be a part of that success story.
Thanks to the many who believed and invested in me, real change is happening in my community. I encourage those with the capacity to act to support grassroots leaders like myself. We are already here doing the work — join us to make a better future for girls.
SJ: If you could send a message to every young girl who has big dreams for the future, what would you say?
KN: Keep dreaming, keep reaching, and never doubt yourself. When it gets hard, look ahead to those who came before you for inspiration, for you are not alone in this journey. And when you see that you are achieving your dreams, turn around to lift up the young girl who is dreaming after you.
Learn more about the Universal Access Project and get involved at www.universalaccessproject.org.