Mary Walker: The true meaning of 'girls empowerment'

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Mary Walker

There is wide disagreement about the meaning of “girls empowerment.” In the case of Maasai girls at risk of female genital mutilation and child marriage, some self-professed girls empowerment programs think that what girls are subjected to should not be called “mutilation” and that being sold as wives to men old enough to be their grandfathers is well-meaning social welfare.

Then there are the programs that think a high school education is enough for these girls to know their legal rights without regard for the social and economic factors that are perpetuating female genital mutilation and child marriage in complete disregard for their illegality.

In some empowerment programs, Maasai girls and women are trained to make “traditional” beadwork to sell to tourists through middlemen or safari camps that take the largest cut while the women remain poverty-stricken.

There even are “girls empowerment” programs that think if Maasai girls are given too much empowerment, it will undermine the “traditional culture” of their people. Unfortunately, those in charge in Kenya don’t see their hypocrisy in the face of girls fighting diligently for what their own brothers already have. They seem to think that it is “development” when boys from traditional cultures have access to economic livelihoods and security, but when girls want the same access, it threatens important traditional cultural values.

The notion that there is a “traditional” Maasai culture that is threatened by girls and women having access to the same opportunities as boys and men is ridiculous. In fact, in the face of land pressure, development and encroachment of Western ways, it is Maasai women and girls who are carrying on with the customs and practices that are considered traditional Maasai — fetching firewood and water, cooking, child rearing, the ubiquitous Maasai beadwork, etc. When I walk around Narok, it primarily is women and girls who still don the traditional Maasai dress; the men and boys turned to trousers, baseball caps and warm coats a long time ago. By and large, you probably will see a young man in traditional Maasai dress only at camp during your safari vacation — and he may not even be a Maasai.

Unfortunately, what does constitute traditional and stereotyped male behavior among Maasais is boys and men routinely whipped into a machete-wielding frenzy by politicians for “traditional Maasai land rights” while everyone — even those whipping them into their frenzy — knows that land issues never will be negotiated in their favor. Then there are the National Geographic-worthy Moran, many of whom are thugs who terrorize women and girls in their search for food and wives.

I don’t know if I’ve been successful, but I’d like to think that I don’t bring the biases, stereotypes or agendas to my effort to help these Maasai girls that I see at work at many of the girls empowerment programs. In fact, unlike the other programs I see operating, for the past five years, I’ve tried to listen to what the girls themselves tell me about what they need. And from the start, they’ve told me that they need job skills as a way out of the dehumanizing and unrelenting poverty that grips their families and communities. So with your help, I’ve tried to assist with this in the best way I could, by providing a small number with the chance to go to college and university to train to be teachers, accountants, IT specialists, etc. It may not seem like much, but for the seven girls who now are in college or university (along with the three who now are teachers), their futures look very different than they did just five years ago.

Mary Walker, a resident of Clark for 25 years, started as a volunteer five years ago at the Tasaru Girls Rescue Centre, which rescues Maasai girls from female genital mutilation and child marriage in Kenya. She now provides college and university assistance to several Maasai girls. Mary can be reached at mewalker99@yahoo.com.

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