By girls’ education activist Selina Nkoile and ONE Policy Manager Gabriele Simeone
In the Maasai community, girls are booked for marriage at the age of 6, sometimes earlier. Once married off — generally, at age 12 — their fathers are compensated for their daughters with cows (or ng’ombe in Swahili), the most precious assets a Maasai family can have.
Before being married off though, child brides have to go through female genital mutilation and — if they survive — become wives of all Maasai men of the same age group as their husbands.
Life isn’t easier before marriage either: Maasai girls are property, free labour in the eyes of their fathers, who are polygamous and have dozens of kids to work for them. We girls are also shepherds, the real nomads of a pastoral community. As young as 8, we have to walk days to graze our animals because climate change has desertified our lands and decimated our wild fruit trees. At least we sometimes have the cows that can feed us when we graze them.
Education saved me from this nightmare.
I was booked for marriage at the age of 7, just before an NGO established the first-ever boarding school in our area. Shortly after, the girls of my village and I started to be booked for school and not marriage.
Were it not for this school and the education I got, I would have ended up a child bride.
My perception of life changed: I became more knowledgeable, more powerful. What I learnt at school went far beyond reading, writing and counting. What I really learnt, although no one actually taught it to me, was my right to say NO to forced marriage, to say NO to forced labour.
I learnt to be a woman on my own terms, a woman who has kids by choice rather than by chance. Now I am able to provide for my family — for my mom, who is my role model. She is the strongest woman I have ever met with the kindest soul ever, despite her having gone through a tough life and domestic violence ever since she was married at 15.
A year ago, I decided to quit my job at a Chinese multinational in Nairobi and lead rescue missions to bring the 800 girls living in the surrounding villages to the same school I went to, Naning’oi, accredited by the government in 2004 but abandoned in 2009 by the NGO and now transitioned to the hands of our organisation, Nashipai. The girls stay together at the school, and their mothers come visit them often.
Thanks to education, the older girls’ voices are growing stronger by the day in their communities; during holidays they go back home and convince parents of the value of education. Some mothers now even help their daughters sneak to classes, something we had never seen before. It is very important for us to make sure that the girls are equipped with skills that will allow them to earn a living; that’s why we have volunteer teachers teaching them about permaculture and sustainable agriculture, entrepreneurship, Maasai beadwork, garments and other handicrafts.
Up to now I was able to rescue 163 of them, but I have a list of all of the 800 girls’ names. I want these 800 girls to be educated and empowered, to live a healthy life and lead the change they want to see in society the same way I did.
The path ahead of us is very steep though: We need a lot of money to restructure the school; build proper sanitation facilities; and give the girls uniforms, shoes and food. When I am a bit blue, because I don’t know how we will be able to provide for all the girls, I always tell myself that whatever happens next, the worst is behind us. The girls escaped a life of mutilation, slavery and sexual abuses and they are getting a free education, thanks to our volunteers.
I look at them every day and think how much potential our communities are losing by enslaving us like that. The Naning’oi girls have dreams and aspirations that go from being a doctor to being an agricultural entrepreneur, from being an engineer to being a mother, or a teacher, an activist. Their strength is unrivalled; after the rescue, they tell themselves that there is nothing that they cannot do.
And you can take my word for it: I will do whatever is in my power to help them realise their full potential.
Every single one of them.
To learn more about Selina’s work, click here.