This is a guest post by Pauline Wambeti, Country Director at Nuru Kenya.
A gift of two cows was all it took for Robi to agree to give her 13-year old daughter away in marriage. Boke, the soon-to-be child bride, had zero say in the matter. Her family desperately needed the two-cow dowry to provide milk that her parents could sell for income. Even the tribal chief was putting a lot of pressure on Boke’s parents to take the marriage deal because he genuinely believed it honored the family and youthful fifth grader.
Anyone reading this true story may find it hard to believe that a parent would give up so much for so little. One of the real tragedies here is that since the wedding, Boke has dropped out of school, significantly reducing her ability to find income generating work and her lifelong chances of living above the global poverty line. Statistically, women like Boke have numerous children, further compounding the financial pressure she will feel while raising a family. I personally know far too many “Bokes” since I, too, grew up below the global poverty line in rural Kenya. I remember pausing my own education and working odd jobs to help my mother pay for household and life expenses, including school fees for my younger siblings to complete school. This was a heavy burden to bear at such a tender age. However, my story turned out differently, and I owe it all to my mother.
My mother, Lydia, was a trained schoolteacher and taught me from a young age to create opportunities for growth and learning. Although our means were limited, she taught us to read and think critically. Though my mother and Boke’s mother were in very similar financial situations, Robi focused on the now, while my mother focused on the future—even though it made surviving each day a little harder. My mother resisted tribal pressures for my sisters and me to marry young and fervently supported our educational pursuits.
This wasn’t easy, especially considering that today one in three girls in low- and middle-income countries (excluding China) continue to be married before the age of 18, and one in NINE girls are married before their 15th birthday. According to UNICEF, an estimated 59 million boys and girls are still missing out on their right to primary education, and children from the poorest households are 5 times more likely to be out of school than children from the wealthiest. This is detrimental to future households as well as GDP since studies show each additional year of secondary school education increases a girl’s potential income by between 15 and 25 percent.
Because of my mother’s perseverance, I am proud to have graduated from high school and completed my BA in Community Development from Gretsa University in Thika, Kenya. Dedicating my life to breaking the cycle of international poverty, I have joined various development agencies over the years, including the United Nations, and now oversee a staff of more than 150 as the country director for a sustainable community development organization called Nuru Kenya.
Mothers have incredible power over the lives of her children. In the face of global threats as complex as violent extremism, women are stepping up as part of the solution. In India, filmmaker and activist Archana Kapoor has helped establish a series of “Mothers Schools” in Mewat to support and train women in expressing their concerns about the effect of radicalization in their communities and families. In partnership with the US Institute of Peace, Nigerian women activists are mobilizing their communities to constructively connect with the police and resist Boko Haram.
The power of a mother is not measured by the financial resources she has to give. The power of a mother lies in her advice, her dedication, her love, her encouragement. As the single mother of a wonderful 14-year old boy, I recognize that the lessons I teach him now will influence the rest of his life. I often tell him, my staff and the community farmers we serve, “You may not have the opportunity to lead your community out of problems, but you can lead problems out of your life.” I cannot offer my son wealth, but I can model a mentality that will inspire him to invest in his own learning, ambition and growth.
Today on Mother’s Day, I first and foremost call on each of us to take time to make our own mothers feel appreciated and loved. And I also encourage a new tradition: for each mother to talk with another mother about how you can use your influence to promote peace and prosperity in our communities and world. We mothers are ubiquitous. We are in every corner and community of this world. And that’s why, when we unite together as a force for good, we are powerful.
Pauline Wambeti is the Country Director of Nuru Kenya, a community development organization ending extreme poverty in rural Kenya. Before joining Nuru in September 2013, Pauline worked for the United Nations Environment Programme at the African regional office in Nairobi. Pauline was also a Programme Officer for the National Organization for Peer Educators; a Business Development Officer for K-Rep Bank Ltd; and a Program Facilitator for Doctors of the World. Pauline has a BA in Community Development and is pursuing an MBA in Public Health from Jomo Kenyatta University.