In Maasai culture, every Girl is to be engaged at the age of five, circumcised as a teenager, and immediately married off to her most prospective suitor. This tradition has been fulfilled over time and passed down to generations.
Emorata, which is the Maasai word for circumcision is a rite of passage meant to prepare children of both genders for adulthood. The procedures however differ for boys and girls.
For the young girl, the process is referred to as Emuatare; a ritual to prepare her for adulthood and marriage. Without this ritual, young girls are believed to be un-marriageable. Maasai men believe that an uncircumcised girl if married is undeserving of a bride price or at most, a reduced one. Uncircumcised Maasai women are also seen as immature and are considered as not befitting of any big opportunities or engagement.
In 1978, Kakenya Ntaiya was born somewhere in Kenya. As dictated by tradition, she was engaged at five and pulled out of school to undergo her Emuatare rites in preparation for her soon to come marriage to her neighbor who was a year older than her, and from a family poorer than hers at the age of 13. It was then that she shared with her father her plans and future ambitions.
Ntaiya wanted no part in such harmful tradition. She was not ready to become a wife or a mother which would disturb her future aspirations.
She wanted to remain in school and finish her education, which was uncommon amongst the Maasai women.
However, she came to an agreement with her father. She would undergo the Emuatare ritual, on the condition that she would be allowed to finish High school, which she did. She would go on to start a trend that set her on the path of fighting for the eradication of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) amongst her people.
Ntaiya completed High School in Kenya and was looking to travel abroad for her university education when her father took ill hence causing a strain on the family’s finances as a result of which she was unable to travel abroad for her university education.
She decided to speak to her village elders, seeking help with funds needed for university abroad. They promised to help in return for a step-down of education, knowledge, and skills learned to help the women and girls in her village.
She attended Randolph-Macon Woman’s College Lynchburg Virginia for her B.Sc, where she was the subject of a four-part series in Washington post, and a Doctorate in Education from the University of Pittsburgh, where she was the recipient of the Sheth International Young Alumni Achievement Award.
In fulfillment of her promise, Ntaiya founded a nonprofit organization; Kakenya’s Dream. The goal of the organization is to educate young girls about harmful traditional practices such as child marriage and Genital Mutilation. The organization also speaks to women teaching them that girls should be allowed to go to school and complete their education.
In 2009, Ntaiya also founded a school (Kakenya’s Center for Excellence). Open to girls in Kenya from the age of 10. This is to educate young girls as early as possible, so they are aware of the dangers of FGM. Parents of girls in Kakenya’s school agree not to force their daughters into early marriages, and not to engage in the practice of FGM.
When Kakenya’s Center for Excellence started, about 30 girls enrolled. Today, over 200 girls are enrolled, and thousands of young girls are beneficiaries of the school which also provides: housing, food, books, and quality education.
At the start of the pandemic in 2020, Kakenya was worried that though she (the school) had been doing an amazing job at teaching these girls how to be independent, she feared that constant pressure from family and relatives would get to them thereby forcing them into early marriages and Genital Mutilation. Her joy was however full when all the girls returned to school when schools were opened and non-had undergone the Emuatare ritual. Evidence that she was making a difference in her community.
In addition to catering to the needs and education of young girls and women, Dr Ntaiya runs a program for members of her community, including young boys. Educating them on the dangers of Genital cutting to girls, and enlightened them about the disadvantages of early marriage.
Dr Kakenya Ntaiya has received many awards and recognitions amongst which are:
- CNN Hero Finalist,
- National Geographic Emerging Explorer,
- Feminist Majority Global Women’s Rights Award, Feminist Majority Foundation (2013),
- Vital Voices Global Leadership Award (2008),
- Woman of Impact (Women in the World),
- Women Deliver 100 Most Inspiring People Delivering for Girls and Women,
- A feature in Bill Gates’ Heroes in the Field series (2022)