Saving Girls: Kakenya Ntaiya Is a CNN Hero

Pilot. Doctor. Teacher. These are the answers given by girls at Kakenya's Center for Excellence in the tiny, rural village of Enoosaen, Kenya, when asked what they want to be when they grow up. These would not be remarkable responses in the United States, but deep in Maasai country, like so many places around the world, the reality for girls is very different.

The founder of the school, Kakenya Ntaiya, grew up in a hut made of straw, mud, and dung with no running water or electricity. She was born in 1978, but does not know the exact day -- her mother cannot remember. She was engaged at age five to the six-year-old boy next door.

I met Kakenya seven years ago when she was a youth advisor with UNFPA's Washington, D.C., office, and her vision and tenacity to effect change for girls in Kenya is just as clear and strong today as it was when I first met her.

Kakenya says she cannot remember a time when she did not work. By age ten Kakenya would come home from school, milk and herd the cows, collect firewood and water, clean, take care of her siblings, and cook dinner. She was expected to endure female genital mutilation (FGM) shortly after reaching puberty, be married by the time she was fifteen, and immediately start bearing children. Her life would then consist of working to maintain her family, starting the same cycle over again for her daughters.

But Kakenya broke the cycle and is now helping hundreds of girls in southern Kenya do the same.

Kakenya avoided FGM for several years by staying in school, but eventually her father insisted. She negotiated a trade. She would be circumcised if she could finish high school. He agreed and, as Kakenya reflects, "one morning they take you to the cow corral and right there, in front of everybody, a grandmother comes and does it to you. You feel this horrible pain but you can't cry: ever since you're a little girl, they tell you can't cry. And once it's over, you can't talk about it with anyone."

After she graduated from high school, she convinced her village elders to allow her to attend college in the United States. The village helped collect funds for her and she vowed to return and build a school, a maternity hospital, a future for girls. She earned a Doctorate in Education from the University of Pittsburgh and fulfilled her promise. She returned and built Kakenya's Center for Excellence (KCE), a school that enrolls at-risk girls from the community.

KCE is a model for holistically addressing the many challenges facing girls in the developing world. One of the first barriers that must be overcome is entrenched attitudes. In 2006, the local chief said, "girls are for marriage, so there is no need to educate them." Today he is an enthusiastic member of the Board of Trustees at KCE.

KCE is also a model for ending FGM and early marriage. More than 90 percent of Maasai girls endure FGM, early marriage, and early childbearing -- none at KCE do. School gives them a future and parents can see that keeping them in school has value. If all Maasai girls had access to quality schools, FGM and early marriage might disappear in a generation. Kakenya also educates parents about the dangers of these practices and has them sign a written promise that they will not subject their daughters to FGM or early marriage.

Kakenya and the KCE have more to do. Currently, many girls fleeing FGM and early marriage end up in Kenya's cities alone and without resources. They face poverty, hunger, and sexual exploitation. A rescue center would give these girls safe harbor and assistance. Kakenya also wants to build a school dormitory so she can accept girls from outside the village, and keep local girls safe from sexual assault by eliminating the long walk home in the dark. And as the first class of 8th graders graduates from KCE this December, Kakenya dreams of being able to provide every qualified graduate with the resources she needs to attend high school.

The girls at KCE accept no boundaries, and neither does Kakenya. Her approach is an effective and culturally sensitive model that could be replicated elsewhere in Kenya and in the world. She was recently named one of CNN's Top Ten Heroes for 2013. The public will choose the 2013 CNN Hero by voting online and the winner will receive $250,000 for their programs. Kakenya and girls around the world would benefit by your vote. To vote for Kakenya, click here.