Mary Walker: Giving Maasai girls a chance

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Editor's note: Clark resident Mary Walker works at the Tasaru Girls Rescue Centre in Narok, Kenya. The center was built in 2002 and provides a safehouse for Maasai girls. Walker's updates appear periodically in the Steamboat Today.

— I am returning to my work at the Tasaru Girls Rescue Centre in Narok, Kenya. The centre was built in 2002 with funding from the United Nations, and it provides a safehouse and education, through secondary school age, for Maasai girls who have run away from their families to escape or who have been rescued from female genital mutilation and forced childhood marriage. Although the practices are illegal in Kenya, they are prevalent among the Maasai people, who number about 800,000 throughout Kenya.

The practices of female genital mutilation and forced childhood marriage stand in stark contrast to the stereotypic notion of the Maasai people as a noble, idealized, even romanticized culture. FGM and forced childhood marriage are anything but noble customs. A Maasai girl as young as 9 years old may not survive "the cutting" because of heavy bleeding, shock and infection. If she does survive the cutting, her lifelong health prognosis includes chronic urinary tract infections - often leading to kidney failure, keloids and heavy scarring that make sexual intercourse excruciatingly painful - and severe, life-threatening ripping of the vagina during childbirth.

Once circumcised, a Maasai girl now is ready to be married. For the typical price of five cows paid to her family, a Maasai man will purchase the girl. If he is older, say, 45 to 50 as opposed to her age of 13 or 14, he typically already will have five or six other wives. Once married, the girl's purpose in life is to haul water, carry firewood and bear children. If she bears a boy, he will become responsible for the cattle owned by the family. If she bears a girl, well, the cycle continues ... unless that girl finds her way to a safehouse such as the Tasaru Girls Rescue Centre.

In January 2008, in collaboration with the nonprofit organization Global Relief Resources, the Tasaru Scholarship Fund was established to pay school fees and associated costs for girls from Tasaru to attend college, university, teachers' college, nursing school or other post-secondary programs in Kenya.

But, the centre cannot support girls in its care past secondary school. Some girls have been forced to return to their families because they had no options for pursuing further education and job training. The economic strain this places on their families actually may perpetuate the cycle of FGM and forced marriage among the Maasai people.

I have learned recently that two girls from Tasaru have been accepted to teachers' colleges. Two other girls already have begun preschool teachers' training. These four rescued girls are the first to attend post-secondary programs since the safehouse was built. This is tremendously good news - for the girls themselves, the economic futures of their families and the fight against FGM and forced marriage.

I am so excited for, and very proud of, these very deserving young women who have faced so much trauma in their lives. We are witnessing a remarkable turn of events for them, particularly in light of the circumstances of their childhoods. With the respect owed them in their position as teachers or nurses, these young women stand ready to mentor and assist other young Maasai girls facing FGM and forced marriage.

The Tasaru Scholarship Fund is off to a good start. The fund has received donations ranging from $20 to $1,500 - including a donation from the student council of Soda Creek Elementary School - and full sponsorships for specific girls from the Snowmass Chapel in Snowmass and from several local individuals. A 13-year-old girl from Boston recently donated all of her Bat Mitzvah gifts to the fund. In the next three years alone, we anticipate as many as 20 girls from Tasaru will go on to college.

When I think about how far these girls have come in such a short time, I am reminded of something Bill Gates said in his 2006 commencement address to students at Harvard University.

"I hope you will judge yourselves not on your professional accomplishments alone, but also on how well you have addressed the world's deepest inequities : on how well you treated people a world away who have nothing in common with you but their humanity," Gates said.

Thanks to everyone who supports this fund, one such inequity now is being addressed - one Maasai girl at a time.

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