Mary Walker: Kenyans need more than cash
Steamboat Springs — Editor’s note: Clark resident Mary Walker volunteers at the Tasaru Girls Rescue Centre in Narok, Kenya. The center was built in 2002 and provides a safehouse for Maasai girls who have escaped or been rescued from female genital mutilation and forced childhood marriage. Walker’s updates from Kenya appear periodically in the Steamboat Today.
Three years ago, I started a program to assist Maasai girls in Kenya to go to college, university or vocational training. At that time I thought that the only obstacle for these girls, rescued from female genital mutilation and forced child marriage, to achieve real and meaningful freedom from these cultural practices was financial — that they simply lacked the financial resources to go to college and learn job skills, find sustainable employment in Kenya and achieve some measure of economic independence.
I now know that the obstacles for these girls, and in fact all girls across the world who live under constant oppression, go beyond a simple lack of money to pursue their right to education. There are many powerful forces in such cultures whose sole purpose is to perpetuate longstanding inequalities between the haves and the have-nots. Language and transportation barriers for accessing information and assistance from weighty bureaucracies disenfranchise many people. Deeply entrenched nepotism and corruption prevent opportunities from reaching beyond a small and privileged class of insiders. Legal systems that do not value or protect a woman’s right to own property mean that she never can accumulate a large enough farm plot to do anything more than live hand-to-mouth for her and her children.
Lack of access to basic medical care, including reproductive care and information about birth control, means that women and girls are consigned to a cycle of bearing more children, at greater risk of disease and malnutrition, than they can ever hope to care for and educate properly. These are only a few of the many challenges that a young Maasai woman in Kenya will face as she tries to break free of dangerous and oppressive cultural practices.
So what began as an effort to simply provide for school fees, textbooks and room and board at college for these girls is now a much more flexible assistance. I now find myself providing assistance so the girls can get national IDs and birth certificates; paying medical bills when a girl contracts malaria, has a cavity, or needs to have an ovarian cyst removed; arranging basic computer training for the girls when they leave high school; and giving each girl a cell phone so that she can access the predominant means of communication along with its increasingly useful system of mobile banking and mobile savings in Kenya called MPesa.
For those girls who are simply not qualified to go on to college but must have some resource with which to get an economic foothold, the assistance requires even more flexibility. This may include providing startup money to start a small business or farm plot or facilitating the purchase of a chicken, milk cow, small solar panel or bicycle. These are just some of the things that must be addressed for these Maasai girls in Kenya to even get in line for the “access to opportunity” that is such a cliché here in the United States.
I do strongly believe the expression that if you “Invest in a girl, she will do the rest.” But I have learned that the nature of this investment can be far more diverse than I originally thought. To be honest, school fees are the easy part.
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