by Charlotte Feldman-Jacobs, program director, Gender
Last week, I visited ground zero of hope and it wasn’t in Washington, London, or Geneva. It was 60 kilometers outside of Nairobi, in a small town called Kajiado.
With 15 journalists in a workshop funded by USAID and organized by PRB, I went to the AIC Girls’ Primary School and Rescue Center and although we were hot, dusty, and grumpy from the traffic jams and rough roads when we arrived, we left hopeful and inspired.
While we were there we heard from the headmaster, Nicholas Muniu, and a dedicated staff member named Catherine that change is happening: that girls named Emily and Beatrice were among the girls who had come to the school escaping from certain early marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM); that among the 706 girls now at the school, 217 were rescued from early marriage and FGM; that some were brought by uncles, fathers, and mothers who wanted something better for these daughters. Even more amazing, many came by themselves.
The school began in 1959 with 20 girls and now has more than 700, with a waiting list of girls who want to come. While some of the girls were only rescued after they had already been subjected to FGM or early marriages, the school is now rescuing many before this happens. While the school was formerly viewed with suspicion—and even met with spear-carrying husbands and fathers—the school is gaining respect quickly. The graduates of Kajiado graduate with top academic skills, according to headmaster Muniu. And more importantly, the thinking among chiefs in the region has changed dramatically. “Chiefs now accept that educating girls is more important than getting two cows for them in early marriages,” Muniu says.
It quickly becomes apparent that the school, which runs through grade 8, is more than a shelter for these girls, it’s a doorway to a brighter future. While customs and laws change slowly in this part of the world, these girls quickly grasp that they can be anything they want. They study hard, they live without many of the amenities expected in the West, they sometimes say goodbye forever to families who would force them to undergo old customs and harmful traditional practices. But they have dreams, these girls. When asked what they want to be, they answer doctors and lawyers and pilots. Though they may never have been on an airplane, I know that some day they will be. For this school has given them wings to fly.