November 30, 2022
By Catey Vera, UNA-NCA Human Rights Committee Chair

I had the honor of sitting down last month to speak to human rights champion Dr. Kakenya Ntaiya, founder and president of “Kakenya’s Dream,” a non-profit dedicated to educating girls in Kenya and ending harmful practices like child marriage and female genital mutilation. We discussed her incredible story, her journey to human rights advocacy, and her hopes for the future.


An early advocate and lifelong learner:
At just five years old, Dr. Ntaiya was engaged to be married. A husband had been selected for her, and she would need to spend the next several years learning the skills to become an ideal wife. Though child marriage was not an unusual occurrence in her Massai village, it deeply disturbed her. “My work of being a human rights advocate started before I even knew when I was young,” she says.

Even at that young age, a young Kakenya was acutely aware of how the women and girls in her community lived lives full of pain and abuse. She saw how her mother suffered abuse from the hands of her father. “I hated seeing it,” she remembers, “I always wanted to do something, and I would try to physically protect her, but I didn't have a way out.” Making a positive difference for her mother and the women in her community seemed like an insurmountable series of challenges.

Still a young child, Kakenya realized that her options in life would be cut short if she were forced to marry at puberty and live the life of an obedient wife. 

Instead, in a remarkable display of courage, Kakenya struck up an impossible negotiation with her father: Kakenya offered to willingly undergo the inhumane practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) as her society demanded of her—but in return, they could not prevent her from completing her education.  

In the years that followed, Kakenya not only completed her high school education, but also went on to attend college in the U.S.  

Returning home for the winter holidays one year, she witnessed a stark reminder of what she was fighting to prevent: the marriage of a 12-year old neighborhood girl. 

“I felt very hopeless because: one, I knew it was wrong. I wanted to do something, but I felt I didn't know what to do. I was a student, but at the same time there was no space. Like there was no place I could take her to. How do I protect her?” This painful experience proved to be a real call to action for Kakenya, motivating her to continue her studies in order to make a positive impact on her community.

After pursuing and earning her Ph.D. in education, Dr. Ntaiya returned to her village to fulfill her ambition of making life better for the women in her community. She founded “Kakenya’s Dream,” an international nonprofit organization that leverages education, health, and leadership programs to educate girls, end FGM and child marriage, and uplift her community. 

In line with this mission, Dr. Ntaiya then opened a boarding school to educate girls. “It is crucial for them to know that there's another alternative. Girls should go to school, they should drive, they shouldn't be forced into marriage, they shouldn't be raped on their way to school. They have rights. … We need to live with dignity and we need to live with peace and we need to live like humans.”

Slow but steady progress:
Dr. Ntaiya’s organization and school have had a tremendous impact on the lives of hundreds of individual girls in Kenya. Still, she is quick to add that much work remains to be done, not just in rural Kenya but on a global scale. “Unfortunately, abuse is global. We are all connected. And what I experience and what the women in my community experience is what women in rural America also experience.”

I then asked about the role for UNA-NCA to play in strengthening her cause. “It is incredibly important for others to know what we're doing. To be able to do that, our work must be amplified, through the UN, international organizations, and non-profits like the UN Association. Dr. Ntaiya emphasizes, for example, that international pressure was instrumental in pressuring Kenya to pass a law banning FGM. However, there is still significant social pressure on families that their girls undergo the practice. Therefore, ongoing international coverage is critical in shining a light on the practice to ensure that the law is followed and the culture is changed. “And so there's this rapid effect that the global is connected to the local and the local is connected to the global.” The UN, boasting the “most member states of any similar organization in the world,” acts as a centralizing force to amplify “all of our voices from a single place.” 
 
Dr. Ntaiya emphasizes that another critical role for the UN is providing a forum for the exchange of ideas. “The United Nations links us, it brings us together. And it makes sense just for me to hear of work in India and work in Latin America. If the UN did not exist, I would probably not know about such ongoing issues.” There is thus value in sharing experiences with other nations who are undertaking similar ventures because this underscores that your own advocacy efforts are reasonable, standard, and worth pursuing.  

Inspiration from her own life and hope for the next generation:
As a girl, Kakenya was inspired by her mother and early teachers for giving her a sense of hope for a better future. Today, Dr. Ntaiya draws inspiration from the young women she has helped educate and empower. Many of these women, now in their twenties, joined Kakenya Dream programs at just nine or ten years old. Seeing them graduate from college and embark on a life of their own brings Dr. Ntaiya deep pride. “They are full of wisdom, full of knowledge, and living their full potential.” Seeing the impact she has had on particular girls’ lives is especially moving. One of her students, for example, is now pursuing a master’s degree in cybersecurity. “This kid grew up with no running water, no electricity, just a village girl. Now she's happy, she's excited. She's following her passion and being free of FGM, being free of child marriage.” 

Dr. Ntaiya is optimistic about a future for Kenya filled with youth and women in leadership roles. Still, she recognizes how overwhelming and insurmountable the current challenges in the world may appear. Her suggestion? “I narrow human rights to what is immediately around me. How do I help those around me to live a better life?” Narrowing the scope of her work makes its impact far more personal. “The UN is so big. Where do you even start? … Instead, look at your neighborhood, look at your community. Where are the gaps? What are you passionate about? Are you somebody who wants to get on the ground and do the work in your hands? Are you somebody who wants to just write about it? You need to find your passion and how it links to human rights.” Through doing so, Dr. Ntaiya advises, we are able to make a tangible impact on our immediate surroundings without becoming overwhelmed by the abuses perpetrated in every corner of the globe.

Dr. Ntaiya likewise cautions against inaction while waiting for some “perfect opportunity” to arise: they simply do not exist, she says. Trial and failure are the building blocks of humanitarian success. “Look for partners in your community who are doing on-the-ground work and offer your expertise. It will be amazing to see that when we all work together, our impact multiplies into a ripple effect for generations to come.”

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