Up until now, the only education anyone thought severely impoverished and marginalized students in a developing country needed was a high school education. But as I have argued for years, a high school education in a developing country does nothing to train youths, particularly young women, with the skills they need to be fully and sustainably employed and empowered.
I am very wary of girls’ empowerment programs that gauge and advertise their success based on how many girls have finished high school. Speaking the Queen’s English as learned in high school means very little to a young woman who must return to the crushing isolation, endless cycle of poverty and de facto slavery that characterizes the lives after high school for so many of the Maasai girls who I know.
But why has it been so easy to promote the idea that a high school education alone will empower such a young woman? As well-meaning as all of the programs and organizations might be to provide needy and marginalized students in a developing country with a high school education, I think there has been a not-so-subtle racism at the foundation of their emphasis. The philosophy, “Aren’t we doing a wonderful thing by helping these poor girls go to school?” pervades empowerment programs for girls. We see the celebrity activist visiting a developing country on TV promoting her cause and soliciting donations to “empower” girls by putting them through high school. But once the TV cameras have been turned off and the celebrity has gone home, does anyone follow the course of these girls after they complete high school to see whether this has empowered them?
I am encouraged that there are a few positive signs in Kenya that have the potential to improve access to college even for the most marginalized Maasai girls. The Kenyan government has promised to absorb more well-performing but needy students into its government sponsorship program at public universities. A well-respected private college is partnering with a large, credible nonprofit organization to provide low-cost loans to some of its students (at 4 percent). More Community Development Funds might make it into the hands of college students in the form of bursaries at the county level.
This subtle shift makes me very happy because it means that the very isolated and extremely impoverished population of Maasai girls with which I am familiar hopefully will have some path to independence and well-being that they so deserve now that I am no longer able to mobilize financial assistance for them. But accessing these opportunities for the financial assistance that they need to go to college is another matter. Lack of electricity and roads — not to mention lack of Internet access or even a newspaper where most scholarships, loans and other forms for college assistance are advertised — means that these girls will struggle just to get the basic information they need to access the assistance. Marginalized and isolated groups do not have the powerful lobby in parliament or the much needed attention of the many charitable organizations that could provide them with meaningful assistance.
For Maasai girls, the opportunity to go to college or university in order to get the training and skills they need for meaningful and sustainable empowerment still is a very elusive goal.
Mary Walker, a 25-year resident of Clark, volunteered 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 girls from the rescue center. Mary can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.