Kenya sits along the eastern coast of Africa. It is a fairly small country—roughly twice the size of Nevada—but it is home to the breathtaking Great Rift Valley, numerous volcanoes, glaciers, and some of Africa's most fertile farmlands. Kenya has traditionally had a strong, agricultural-based economy, in recent years it has declined. Now more than half the population lives below the poverty line. This is only exacerbated by the pervasive corruption that has encumbered the country for decades.
On top of corruption and poverty, the people of Kenya are oppressed by the HIV and AIDS pandemic, which has orphaned over 1 million children as of 2011. In fact, according to CIA's World Factbook, Kenya boasts the 11th highest AIDS mortality rate in the world. Combined with other factors almost half of Kenya's population is under the age of 18.
In rural places, like the North Rift Valley, traditional cultural practices make Kenya a particularly precarious place for girls, since it's appropriate to marry off daughters as young as possible in exchange for a dowry—which usually consists of goats and cows. These same girls are often subject to female genital mutilation (FGM), which is considered a rite of passage before girls can enter into adulthood.
Sadly, FGM marks an irreversible change in the course of many girls' lives. Approximately 90 percent of victims of FGM will drop out of school by age 13, and once girls are circumcised, they are often hurriedly married off to much older suitors who offer the greatest dowries. Education is seen as the key to female empowerment because it provides an alternative from the harmful practices of FGM and child marriage, and gives girls the opportunity to take control of the direction of their lives.
The beginnings of change
Thankfully, the Kenyan government is beginning to address the enormity of this problem. A 2008 national report by the Kenyan Ministry of Education states: "The realization of girls' and women's empowerment through education has been impeded by a number of factors such as cultural and religious attitudes and practices, infrastructural limitations, inadequate policy guidelines, poverty, HIV/AIDS, lack of community awareness as well as lack of adequate female role models, especially in marginal areas."
Thankfully, the government is not the only advocate for these girls. In 2009, with help from the Kenya Aid Programme and World Vision, St. Elizabeth High School was built. This school is now home to more than 200 local girls, and its success is indicative of fundamental community change in that hundreds of families are choosing to forfeit the dowries their daughters would have secured for them and, instead, are investing in their daughters' futures.