The U.N.’s Convention on the Rights of the Child, which establishes age 18 as the minimum age for marriage, has been ratified nearly worldwide. Still, in many developing countries, the tradition of forced early marriage remains a barrier to girls completing their educations.
In Kenya, for example, early child marriage is particularly common among the Maasai people. How is it possible to enforce a law at odds with a traditional practice that is deeply entrenched in the culture of a nomadic tribe?
For hundreds of Maasai girls in Kenya’s Great Rift Valley, education itself has become the answer. When ChildFund opened the Naning’oi Girls’ Boarding School in 1999, it was specifically to rescue girls from early marriage.
The approach ChildFund takes exemplifies the organization’s emphasis on cultural sensitivity and, in fact, works by taking a cue from the Maasai dowry practice, called Esaiyata, of “booking” girls at or before birth for marriage. Offering the typical dowry of livestock or gifts, ChildFund simply substitutes school as an alternative to marriage, booking the girls instead for Naning’oi. The name means, fittingly, “area where cooperation thrives” — a reminder to Maasai men that marriage to schoolgirls is suspended.
The community donated 250 acres of land and worked with ChildFund Kenya to build eight classrooms, two dormitories, five staff houses and eight semi-permanent teachers’ quarters. Barclays Bank also contributed funds toward additional classrooms, a new resource center and beds and mattresses for the dorms. Since 2000, each parent has contributed a goat to the school goat-keeping enterprise, which supports the school and feeds the children.
In 2003, the Kenyan government instituted free primary education for all children, which brought more support and learning materials to the school. In 2005, ChildFund Kenya supported the drilling of a bore hole to provide fresh water for the school, which then housed 350 boarding students. Later that year, a generator to provide lighting was put in place. In 2006, solar panels were installed to offset the costs of running the generator. In 2007, a large pit latrine was built.
Just as important as the physical plant was ChildFund’s work to raise community awareness around the importance of education for girls. Community buy-in led to the growth of the school, which brought further community buy-in. To date, 20 girls have completed grade 8 and have earned places in secondary school. The number of boarders approaches 500, and enrollment is at 900 — remarkable in a community that has traditionally viewed girls’ education as a wasted investment.
These figures represent a recent doubling in the student population. While this affirms the relevance of the school in the community, it also means a significant strain on resources. Sanitary facilities are beyond capacity, and the dormitory and classrooms are so packed that the school has had to appropriate the resource center as an additional classroom.
Stakeholders including parent representatives, the school management committee, ChildFund’s Naning’oi Child Development Programme, ministry of education officials and other area leaders have worked together refining a three-year plan to respond to the needs of the school.
They know that the longer girls stay in school — the more opportunity they are given to realize their potential — the greater the chance of reversing poverty.