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Dr Kakenya Ntaiya: Empowering girls and women in education

Hear from global leader Dr Kakenya Ntaiya, scholar, activist and 2021/2022 Senior Fellow at Brown University. Kakenya is the founder of an international nonprofit organisation that seeks to educate girls, end harmful traditional practices including FGM and child marriage, and transform her community.

Engaged at age 5, Dr Kakenya Ntaiya experienced female genital mutilation (FGM) as a young teenager in preparation for early marriage.

Her life was set to follow the traditional Maasai path of ending school to become a wife and mother, but Kakenya had a different dream. She negotiated with her father to return to school after undergoing FGM. When she was accepted to college in the United States, she promised her rural Kenyan community that she would use her education to help the village in exchange for their support. Kakenya went on to earn her PhD in education from the University of Pittsburgh and returned to her community to fulfill her promise.

In this Sydney Ideas event, Kakenya will provide a keynote address on the value and transformative power of education, sharing a rich perspective that is both intimate and personal as it is global and far-reaching. 

Kakenya will then join a conversation with young women who are studying in Sydney, connected to Kakenya's Dream: 

  • Peyian Kortom, final year Bachelor of Science and Liberal Arts student at the University of Sydney
  • Cynthia Naiyoma, first year Bachelor of Nursing student at UTS. 

Dr Kakenya Ntaiya's appearance at this event is supported by Women for Change and this event is co-hosted with the Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) Program at the University of Sydney.

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Audio transcript

- Good evening everyone. Welcome to Sydney Ideas, the university's flagship Public Talks program. My name is Renae Ryan, and I'm a professor here at the University of Sydney and also the academic director of the SAGE program which stands for Science in Australia Gender Equity. It's my great pleasure to open and host tonight's Sydney Ideas event with Dr. Kakenya Ntaiya on empowering girls and women in education. First, I would like to acknowledge and pay respects to the traditional owners of the land on which we meet the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation. It is upon their ancestral lands on which the University of Sydney is built. And I would like to pay my respects to elders, past and present and extend that respect to any First Nations people here with us today. So, welcome to Sydney Ideas and welcome to the university. I'd really like to thank you all for coming here tonight, and of course, everyone for joining us online. This event is co-presented with SAGE as I said, which is a national evaluation and accreditation framework aimed at improving gender diversity, bolstering women's leadership roles and improving workplace culture for all staff in the higher education and research sector in Australia. I would really like to thank Women for Change for their support of this event and also by bringing our keynote speaker, Dr. Kakenya Ntaiya, Founder of Kakenya's Dream to Sydney. I would also like to especially acknowledge Betty Chemoiwa who is the first counselor of the Kenyan High Commission that is here with us tonight. So first some housekeeping. Live captioning is available for those of you who would like to view it. If you're in the room, please go to ai-live.com and enter the session ID you can see on the screen. If you are joining us via Zoom, our closed captioning is available and please press the CC button. You can also join the conversation on Twitter and Slido, S-L-I-D-O.com, and use the #SydneyIdeas to enter Slido. You can use Slido both in the room or online to enter questions throughout the talk and the panel event tonight. And you can also feel free to tag Kakenya, Kakenya's Dream, SAGEatSydney and Women4change in any of your social media. So tonight we're gonna hear first from Kakenya and then we're going to be joined by a panel, two students that are here studying, Peyian Kortom, and Cynthia Naiyoma and also Dr. Lisa McIntyre, who is a fellow of senate here at the University of Sydney and also on the board of Women for Change. There will be time for questions from the audience at the end. So I'm really excited to welcome Dr. Kakenya Ntaiya to Australia and to the University of Sydney. But you may have noticed that Kakenya is not in the room. Unfortunately, after avoiding COVID for more than two years, Kakenya has just tested positive to COVID and is currently stuck in her hotel room down the road in the city. So are you there Kakenya? So really sorry about this guys. And so sorry Kakenya. I hope you're not feeling too unwell, but this is the life we live in at the moment. Unfortunately COVID has not left us. And thank you very much to the team who very quickly scrambled and got all of this together, the Sydney Ideas team. So welcome Kakenya. So Kakenya is a globally recognized leader, social activist and a senior fellow at Brown University in the USA. She founded Kakenya's Dream to educate girls, end harmful traditional practices, including female genital mutilation and child marriage, and transform her community in Kenya. Tonight, she'll share with us her powerful story and insights into her work in championing gender equity. Please welcome Dr. Kakenya Ntaiya.

- Thank you Renae for your wonderful introductions and everyone for coming this evening. I am sorry. Unfortunately I can't be there with you, but I'm here and the speech continues or the talk continues this evening. So I'm really excited to be here to be sharing about the work that we do in Kenya and for you also to meet our students that are here in Sydney. I wanna start by just sharing a little bit about myself, but also a little bit about the work that we're doing and really looking forward to a great evening together. In 2009, I met a young girl named Jackline. She was vulnerable, but there was something in her eyes that just had that strong determination. A girl like her in the part of the world where she was born was at risks of being subjected to female genital mutilation and child marriage and would likely never go beyond sixth grade in school. Her father was very traditional and believed like, a, all the fathers in the community where Jacqueline is from that a place for girls is not in the school where she would be learning, but to be home taking care of the family and being a wife. All of Jackline's older sisters had been married off in their youths and were forced to drop up school to start families. And this was the path that Jackline's life was going to follow. I was drawn to Jackline's life because her life and path was mirroring my own life. We both come from a very remote, marginalized, underserved Maasai community in rural Kenya and in our community, nearly 80% of women and girls have undergone female genital mutilation, 50% are married of in childhood and only 17% complete primary education and less than 5% continue on to post secondary education. This is because in our community, it is commonly held to believe that only boys should go to school, should be educated and women are meant to stay at home and be wives and be mothers and that's their life. FGM, which is, you know, female genital mutilation is a harmful practice, is seen as a right of passage into womanhood and is often performed in preparation for early marriage. Once girls undergo FGM, they're forced to drop out of school to get and to start taking care of their own family. Now, they're mothers. And this happens as soon as they're even 12 years old. This old age tradition norms not only undermines girls' access to education and economic empowerment, but are also detrimental to their physical and mental health and their wellbeing. My own life was such to follow the traditional Maasai path to undergo FGM in preparation for child marriage. I was engaged when I was five years old and I was to be prepared to get married when I was 12. And that was going to be the end of my education. But that was not the life that I wanted. I had gone to school and I had dreamed of becoming a teacher. And so I did something that no girl had done. I approached my father and told him I will undergo FGM if he would agree to let me go back to school. I didn't know he would agree, but he actually agreed. So I went through FGM and I went back to school. I was very determined when I went back to school. I read and did all I could to work hard. And a few years later I was accepted to university in the US. And that was also another big battle because in my community, they had never seen a girl leave the village, leave alone, you know, the village, to go to the city or somewhere else, leave alone leaving the country. So I had to negotiate again with the elders in my community and really promised them that I would use my education to go to the US, get a study and come back and support them in whatever ways that I could. So, I left home and I found myself in the US, the land of plenty. It is truly where I wanna say that my old world was transformed. For once, I had come from a place, there was no running water, no 24 hours electricity. I had never used a computer. I mean, I've never seen a library and the whole world was opened up for me. And that is when I learned so many things. My first research in college was on female genital cutting. Once because I thought that I actually knew what it was and, you know, I had gone through it and, you know, it's this right of passage, it was a pride in my community. Just to read about the medical, you know, the physical and the mental health and all the things that it had been doing to me but I was quiet. And for that time I started reading about myself and somehow inside me I knew that what had happened to me was wrong and it was still continuing on in the girls in Kenya. And I said I never wanted any other girl to go through that. So I read, and I finished my undergraduate. I worked for the UN because I, you know, as a young person finishing college, I wanted just to change the world. But I realized that that was massive. And I wasn't feeling like I was traveling the world. Speaking about the importance of stopping FGM, the importance of, you know, putting girls to school. It is a human rights and all of that, but I wasn't making any impact. So I had gone back to study and worked on my PhD at the University of Pittsburgh, but there was something inside me that just said, I couldn't wait anymore. So I decided that, you know, instead of just finishing my education, I can also start helping my community because girls in my community could not wait anymore. So I returned home to fulfill the promises that I had, you know, told my people that I'll come back. And so I founded Kakenya's Dream, a nonprofit dedicated to educating and empowering vulnerable girls and ending FGM and other traditional practices like child marriage, and really wanted to transform my community, but also rural rural communities in Kenya. So my organization started as a single school for girls. And it was at the first enrollment that day for my school in 2009 that I met Jackline. Jackline was brought to my school, the Kakenya Center for Excellence the day that we were having the enrollment by someone who had believed in her potential. She was at a crossroad that represented two drastic differences journeys. One part follows Maasai traditions which means undergo FGM, enter marriage as a child, drop out school and being trapped in a circle of poverty that last for generation. This is the part and the norm that so many women and girls in my community went through. And the other part that was there that day was the one for choice. That it required an education that would allow girls to make empowered, informed decisions about their life. By coming to enroll the day my school was opening, Jackline was taking the first step towards choosing her own destiny. After starting my school, I quickly transformed it from a day school into a boarding school because I came to realize that girls, you know, teaching them was not just a, they did not just need a quality education. They needed more. Most of them were walking, you know, miles long in unsafe places and coming to school without food. And there was so much expectations at home for the household work that girls have to do. So they had no time to spend after school to study or just even to be children. So for my school to work, it needed to provide a holistic support to each and every one of our girls. Once our boarding school campus, remember I was the student trying to build the school and just adding on. So once the school was running and, you know, Jackline and had classmates were able to be in a safe place, they could sleep at night, they had nutritional meals, you know, they had the energy and the time to focus in class, their healthcare was taken care of, you know, their support. They were given, like the teachers were there to support them. The teachers were there to empower the girls. We encourage them, we build their self esteem. And so they were doing more than just doing homework and studying, but they were also just playing and being children because they're nine years, they're 10 years, they're children. And that, you know, once destined for child marriage, early motherhood and a life without education, what happened in 2014, Jackline and her a classmate were defying the odds and heading off to high school. Remember I told you that in my community, only 17% of girls finished primary school. Most are forced to drop out even before finishing high school due to financial limitations, lack of support, and a lot of mounting pressure to just get married because girls are for marriage. So though Jackline had done well in our national exam to transition to high school, I knew that for her to move forward, for her to thrive in this next stage of life, she needed continued support. So we started the Network for Excellence program to support our girls who are graduating from our primary school like Jackline as they continue to transition from, you know, primary school to secondary, to tertiary education. Through the network, Holistic Programming, girls receive scholarships, they receive academic tutoring, social support, they receive mentorship. We work with them beyond just the scholarship, is also when they finish high school is to help them apply for colleges and, you know, to continue with their career counseling. We train them on sexual reproductive health and ways on effective study skills and really kind of like being there because most, you know, 98% of their parents that we have in our programs cannot read and cannot write. These girls are the first generations who are going to high school and transitioning to college. And so we needed to put all the support that we can to really transform their lives. But something else that I knew also is that in my own experience, that it's not enough to just invest in girls. And in order for girls to truly thrive, they needed encouragement, they needed the support of their families, their peers, their community. And it required for us to educate these people about the importance of educating girls, why FGM is bad and why child marriage is not options for girls like little girls and really opening up the community to have a discussion about the value of the girl. So as a first step, what we did is we established a program we called Health and Leadership Training program. And this was like our desire really to have conversations with boys so that they can be our allies. Train them on vital issues about health, human rights and really, you know, get into the conversations because that is where we need to have the reality. And really let's talk about girls in, you know, let's empower them. Let's start and really work with the girls. Over the years, we have now continued to work in over a 100 schools in our community to really continue to train boys and girls and community people about the important. And really the aim of the program is to teach young people important information, and that they can also take that information home and share with their siblings, their parents and their community and this dialogue can really continue to take place. And even though that conversation had, you know, we've already always worked with that. We also knew that we couldn't do the work without the importance of the parents. It's good to engage the boys. But what is important is also to bring the fathers on because in our communities, there is no relationship between a father and a daughter. And for us to engage the fathers in the daughter's life, we needed to create ways of bringing them into that. And so we would have parents meetings and we would develop conversations around how the girl is doing in the class. And we really worked with them so that they can start seeing the potential in the girls. And it really, it was one of the greatest places where to see the parents when they start seeing the incredible potential and the confidence in their own daughters, their mindset start shifting. And we have seen them now supporting girls' education and they have become our greatest allies and supporters. We have also engaged grandparents because in our communities, they're the ones who are the proud keepers of our stories and culture. And our goal was really not to uproot the girls from the community, but we wanted to ensure that they could still embrace the important aspect of our rich Maasai culture like bid work and milking, and all the things that we could do that mostly it was the grandmother that could teach them. So we bring the grandmothers to tell the girls the stories, we let them have the shared community and really connect with their grandkids, because that is the way to really continue the generations and the important things that it's important. And what we realized also is that for the first time the mothers, the grandmothers, we were the first to really start engaging them and having conversations with them. And for the first time their voices were being heard, they were there mentoring their daughters. They were there stepping in and really transforming. The daughters also started empowering their mothers and their grandmothers. You know, we have really also worked with religions leaders. We have worked with, you know, elders in the community. We work with the government officials. We really work with the teachers. You know, we get their inputs and we don't just, you know, come and just do stuff. We really need their strategic guidance in order for us to really success and really make sure that girls can be at the center of all the work that we are doing. So, you know, our work has been about bringing everybody to embrace the power of education, educating girls and really showing that we can work with them and change that. So, you know, that is what we've been doing in terms of like connecting with the community. So, you know, what happens, you're asking what happens for girls like Jackline when they have received a quality education, continued assistance through each stage of their education or that journey and the support and encouragement of their community and their family. So in a community where less than 2% of girls make it to tertiary education, Jackline has just graduated from college with a degree in business administration and currently working in an administration department at a high school, not far from our school in Kenya. And she's becoming a role model and all of her other pioneers from that class that joined in 2009 are also graduating from university and other higher education programs. And in fact, one of them is here with us today, Peyian who is completing her bachelor's degree in chemistry from Sydney Uni. And it's just been an incredible. We also have Cynthia who just started studying and pursuing nursing degree from UTS. And to date, we have empowered and educated over 600 girls at our boarding schools. We have supported 330 girls continuing on to high school and university through our Network for Excellence program and have trained over 15,000 boys and girls and community members in our Health and Leadership Trainings. More important, a 100% of the girls in our program have avoided FGM and child marriage. At Kakenya's Dream, we make it a point of support, you know, to empower girls from the moment they step in our primary school to the time they graduate at college. In a community that once believed school is no place for girls, today, hundreds of parents are eagerly bringing their daughters to our school on enrollment days each year in hopes of securing a place for their daughters in the coming class. This impact does not end with the girls who came through our program. As we know, one day, these girls will have children of their own like them. Their daughters will avoid FGM and child marriage, receive an education and be empowered to follow their own path and live the life they dreamed of. And that is a generational shift. That is the power we have at Kakenya's dream. So, unfortunately, the problem that I just stated, you know, that we are trying to solve at Kakenya's Dream in Kenya, it's not just experienced there, but it's also experienced globally. As we speak, 130 million girls between the age of six and 17 who are supposed to be in school are not in school. They face the same barriers that our community is facing. You know, child marriage, poverty, FGM, harmful social norms. These are all things that are negating the value of girls going to school and that is a big problem. If we change this so that every girl in the world were able to access a quality secondary education, it'll have enormous impact. And this is from the World Bank. It says that educating girls could add 92 billion to the economies of low and middle income nation, reducing their reliance on foreign assistant, cutting child deaths by 50%, reducing child marriages by 66% and have the potential to decrease violence by as much as 37%. For every year that a girl stays in school, her future wages increases up to 20% which helps her and her children and later on, she will be able to escape poverty. Organizations like's Kakenya's Dream cannot go it alone. We cannot do just this Kakenya Dream. We need commitment, collaborations, action from the global community to ensure that girls is prioritized. And the barriers to accessing education are confronted and eliminated. Education is a human rights in it of itself. But it also is a gateway that leads to fulfillment of other human rights. Girls who are able to access a quality primary and secondary education are more likely to avoid child marriage. We have seen that in my program. And when they do get married, their children will be able to go to school and their children will also be healthier, they will also avoid early marriages. That is a generational impact. So we need to educate girls. We need to equip them with skills and knowledge so that they can achieve economic empowerment so that we can eradicate poverty. Educated and properly supported girls like Jackline, like Peyian, like Cynthia have the power to reach the full potential and become leaders and change makers in our world. Imagine the impact of every single one of the 130 million girls not in school today. If they were given the resources, if they were supported, where would we be? Our world would be unrecognizable better. It is our job to make that a reality and our work begins now. To fully address the ever present and growing needs in our region, Kakenya's Dream is growing. We're increasing capacity in our schools in terms of building a second, we are in the middle of building a second school so that we can triple our capacity. We are building a youth friendly clinic so that we can, you know, meet the needs of young people in terms of the health. And we are also, you know, graduating anywhere between 30 to 45 young women and transitioning them to tertiary education and programs. The things we have dreamt up and accomplished over the last 13 years is truly a testament to the power of the community. And what is possible when passionate people around the world come together to support an important course. We feel so fortunate. I have been so fortunate and so incredibly supported with an incredible support from a global community. You know, I call them the global Kakenya's Dream family. It includes amazing, amazing partners like Women for Change who have made it possible for over a 100 girls right now in colleges to be in college. It is there. It is people like them who are making a change in our society. To Sydney Uni for making it possible for Peyian Kortom to get an undergraduate degree. Her future is so bright because you believed in her. Our world is so different and I wanna thank you because it is because of all of us. It is because of us being passionate, taking a risk and stepping out bold so that we can support girls and change the cause of our world and create a better world for our children and everybody that comes across and around us. Thank very much. Over to you Renae.

- Thank you so much Kakenya. I've heard your story many times, but every time I hear it, I get goosebumps and a bit teary. It is truly inspirational.

- Thank you.

- And thank you so much for sharing with us.

- Thank you.

- So I would now like to invite our students that we've already heard about. Peyian Kortom who is studying here at the University of Sydney and is in her final year of a bachelor of science in liberal arts degree. And Cynthia Naiyoma who is recently come to Australia and is studying nursing at the University of Technology, Sydney. And I'd also like to invite Dr. Lisa McIntyre up as well who is representing Women for Change. So Kakenya, I mean, you talk about all the things that you do in Kenya, all the people you reach. You know, you started from 30 girls in 2009, and now it's thousands of boys, girls, elders, community. You're also a fellow at Brown University. You do Ted Talks, you know, always doing things. How do you manage it all? You know, how do you deal with the pressure of, you know, also the pressure of being that kind of the front woman for such a large organization that has such a large reach?

- One, I have an incredible team to say the truth. I mean, Kakenya's Dream is because there's so much, there're teachers at the front, day in, day out who are with the girls there. Counselors there are, you know, we've worked with our parents, we've worked with the community to support. I don't so much think about the community in terms of like, they're there, they're supporting the girls. My role is now to raise, of course, raise funds to be able to continue to support the girls and really share our work with the world. Because I think we have really done a very unique thing at Kakenya's Dream and there's so many people who can learn from us. And I get so much energy when I talk to these young women, when I meet them, you know, seeing them, I met them when they're nine years old. Then seeing them when they're graduating from college and, you know, it's just amazing. So you just keep going and really, I get their energy from seeing how much they have accomplished and how bright of our world would be because they got an opportunity to learn.

- Great. Thank you. Okay. Well, Cynthia, I might start with you. How have you found the transition? It's alright. It's on. You should be on. How have you found the transition from living and studying in Kenya to Australia?

- Well, studying in Kenya was different because I enrolled in nursing at university in Kenya in 2019 immediately after high school, but I didn't go to any placement until I was in second year, halfway through second year. But when I go here at UTS and from the very first day I can practice my nursing skills and it's a good thing. Yeah. It keeps me happy to know that I'm learning both practically, theoretically and the classes are much smaller. It's a supportive environment for education. Yeah. That's a good thing.

- Oh, great. And have there been any challenges for you?

- Yes. I had very many challenges, especially with the food. Yeah, for so long I've had only bread and yogurt and ice cream, but thanks to Peyian. Peyian is a very good cook. I can eat decent meals every now and then. Yeah.

- Yes. I've heard Peyian is the cook for all the girls here. They go to her house and have good Kenyan food. So Peyian, you're getting towards the end of your degree here, majoring in chemistry. What are your wishes or aspirations or what would you like to do next after you finish your bachelor's degree?

- Okay, finishing my undergraduate, I'm planning to do an honors. I'm doing a graduate diploma first and after that, I'm planning to do a master's and I would like to be analytical chemist afterwards.

- All right. Analytical chemist. Yeah. And you'll do a master's here at Sydney?

- Yeah, I would love to do it in Sydney.

- Yeah. Great. That's wonderful. And Lisa, I might ask you a question now. Can you tell us a little bit about Women for Change, the mission of Women for Change and how it supports students to study in Australia?

- Sure. So Women for Change has a very simple mission. It is, we would like to educate young disadvantaged women from developing countries. And I think we've just heard just with resounding passion from Kakenya. We know that educating young women makes a difference. The evidence is extraordinarily strong. If you educate a young woman, you educate not just her, you educate her family, and I'm borrowing your words here Kakenya. You educate a family, you educate her village, you educate a community and I think Kakenya's ambition is is we need to educate the world. So Women for Change started about five years ago, 2016. As I reflect also on our journey, well, we can't claim to be as wonderful as what Kakenya has done with her passion and vigor that has inspired lots of people. And it takes lots of individuals to make a change. We came together as a committee because, and I think David Vough is in the audience learning for a better world, heard Kakenya's story on the radio. He brought together a group of women to say, we need to do something. That Kakenya's got all these amazing young women about to graduate high school. We need to find them some tertiary degrees. So we helped raise funds. A lot of those young women being educated in Kenya, but there's a couple that we also wanted to educate over here. And so we asked Steven Garn from the University of Sydney who is also sitting right here. And we say, so we found a place for one here, one at UTS, one at WSU, we needed accommodation. We asked Iglu, we ask people and people understand that this is important. And if you ask enough people, different people become little leaders. So Steven leading here, David leading at LBW, Women for Change trying to help. It is a community of people that come together to try and do the right thing.

- Great. Thank you Lisa. Peyian I might ask you a question. What have been some of the challenges you've faced being so far from home? I mean, you've been here now for four years. How long have you been in Sydney?

- Yeah, so, okay. So one of the challenges is like missing my siblings from a family of 15 and, yeah, it's a big family.

- It's good to get away from 15 to siblings at times.

- Yeah.

- I'm sure it's hard.

- It's hard being away from them. And sometimes like terrible things happen at home, like losing relative and you are away, yeah. Like a few months ago I lost my cousin and it was one of my favorite cousins and I was unable to attend the funeral. Yeah. And it was tough to deal with that.

- Yeah. But you have your Kenyan family here.

- Yeah. I have my Kenyan family here. Sharon, Linet and they're very supportive.

- Yeah. Great. And for you Cynthia, how has COVID impacted your studies? You said you had to start your studies in Kenya.

- Yes. I received my scholarship to study at UTS in 2020 and was supposed to begin in Autumn last year. But unfortunately I couldn't come to Australia so I had to do half the units I could do in autumn and spring. And I had to study at weird hours. I had to stay awake from around midnight to 9:00 AM every day to study. Sometimes I'd doz off in class. It wasn't nice but I made it. I got distinctions and high distinctions. I'm proud.

- Wonderful. It's hard enough doing online learning, but online learning on the other side of the world is a huge challenge. So congratulations. And Lisa, what can we all do better to support international students to study here in Australia. And really make tertiary education accessible for everyone?

- Well, watching these young women is a good reminder that it is difficult. It is difficult to come from Kenya from even after your view in Nairobi and you came straight from en San to come to Sydney and learn, even enrolling when you've never used a computer before. That's a massive hurdle. The hurdles that some of our international students face. We don't have sufficient empathy for that. I've had to learn empathy along the way for the challenges that someone from a very different background have the capability, smart, hardworking, but just a different background to learn. And I remember the first thing we did actually for Peyian and for Sharon, for Linet. We got some help to just teach computer skills. Actually just basic, how to switch it on because everything's digital these days. So those sorts of issues I think is just a reminder. I don't think I can be more specific than saying just deep empathy is what is required for our international students. Deep empathy coupled with as much support as we can give.

- Yeah. That's great. And care, you know? Yeah.

- Support and care.

- Yeah. All right, one for you Kakenya and then I'm gonna open up to the audience. But you talked about FGM and the, you know, the harmful practice it is. It's obviously still being practiced in Kenya and in other countries and even here in Australia by certain communities. What do you think that governments and other leaders can do to really try and end this practice globally?

- So it's estimated that anywhere between three million to four million girls undergo FGM every year. And this is a global figure. It actually happens in Australia from here. So it's not just a problem in Kenya or in Africa. It's a problem here. And, you know, one is of course to implement the laws that are really strict to ensure that whoever is seeking help can actually be protected by the law. But we also need to face the reality and not shy away from educating the communities about these practices. Even though it's not being practiced in your house, your children are in school with girls who have been forced into female genital cutting. And somehow they're connected. So we need to educate, you know, we need to be educated all of us. And really, I think the enforcement is the biggest. The law is, yes, you can have the law, but sometimes if you don't implement it, that is where the issue is. We became successful because we involve the chief, the people on the ground to really implement these policies. But yeah, we need to be open-minded and be as, you know, really learn that we need to protect each other and we need to talk about FGM even in the classrooms and be able to face it because girls in schools have gone through FGM. Yes.

- Yeah. That's a really good point. We need to include it in our education system as well. Okay. Well, I think we will now open for questions. If anyone in the room has a question, we have two roving mics. Please wait until you have the microphone in your hand so everyone can hear you and also people online. And for those that are watching online, please go to slido.com, S-L-I-D-O.com and put in #SydneyIdeas and you can ask questions that way as well. Has anyone got a question? Oh, there's one up the back. Oh, no. Down here Tash. There's one down here. No, you can do it. Good on you. The first one's always the hardest.

- I'll happily start the conversation. So first of all, thank you so much doctor for your lecture. And I think you touched on something that's really important in that educating boys and getting boys involved is really important. And I was wondering, I know you mentioned in the Maasai community it's not very common to leave the community. Have you noticed that by the girls becoming educated, boys are also wanting to kind of follow as well and leave and go educated elsewhere as well? Like has that kind of sparked a little like domino effect?

- Absolutely. Thank you for that question. So before, when we started our girls school, the group, Peyian can share with you that, you know, people used to be that girls school, you know, they had no expectations for us that the girls in the school to do well, but when they did their first national exam in 2013, and they performed the top in the county that we come from, and for the first time we were sending about 10 girls to national school, that had never happened in the community in like even in our sub-county. And all of a sudden people looked at us like, "Oh, these people are smart." And there was a lot of competition between boys and girls. And like now it's like, now it's kind of like normal, everybody's competing to do the best. And of course the girls are challenging the boys. And we've really been able to spark that, you know, in the past there was no problem. Boys were getting educated. You know, every family always had that son that they made sure that went into college so that he can be into politics or into... There was always somebody in each family that was educated in terms of male, but this was the first time that girls were changing that. And of course when they finished their high school, transitioning into college and like, it was just amazing to see the first cohort of students that went through which is, Peyian is part of that. It really changed the community. They changed their parents. I mean, Peyian's father had never gone to past, I think beyond the, one of the villages, you know, one of the cities, but he was able to go and see where daughter is in city far away in Colin High School. And yes, being able to know that this man who had not left the village himself, he was able also to take her daughter to the airport and get on the plane. It's just unbelievable. And those are kind of like eye opening. They're able to see other women who are educated, they're able to, you know, have a really global mind. And sometimes you just need to show people how that educated woman is for them to really embrace it. And now Peyian can tell you they're real big role models. Cynthia can tell you how everybody wants to get with us to be educated. And it's amazing to show sometimes. Yes.

- Well, that's wonderful. Thank you Kakenya. Any other questions? Oh yeah. There's a couple there. There's one there next Tash in the red.

- [Female] Thank you so much doctor for taking your time to speak to us all today. It's so fantastic to see you again. What we just had a question about was how can Australians who aren't a part of the Kenyan community support you and the work that you do in your organization?

- Thank you for your question. One is to join the team of, you know, Women for Change. There are representatives there today if you wanna reach out to them. They are really coordinating our efforts in Australia. Of course, you know, if you know, I always tell people, look at who you are with. You might have connections to foundations. You might have connections to people who have something to support the girls, especially who are here. You know, you can donate, you can do a lot. And so I would like to point, you know, I think there's Kylie Stroll... She'll be able to really give you all the details. And I'm really grateful. I've really had an amazing team in Australia that have come together and supported these girls in an amazing way. So, keep it up and hopefully we'll bring more girls.

- Yes. Yes, definitely. Yep. Next question.

- Thanks so much. This question is also for you, Dr. Ntaiya. Regarding the work you've been doing with the female genital mutilation, specifically, just some more detail about how you first went about that. I'm sure, coming into the community, I understand you worked with the elders and the religious leaders, but about, was there pushback at the start? I'm sure there was likely some reluctance there and how you overcame that. I'm sure that the education was obviously really important, but how you kind of overcame that first hurdle to people really listening and taking that on board.

- So, you know, when we were starting the school, we didn't start with saying the girls who goes to this school would not go through the cut. I mean, we knew we were going to somehow bring that up because I didn't want to prevent, you know, girls to just come. So we brought in the girls and literally I think two years later, one of our girls was forced to go through FGM, that their family wanted to force her to go through FGM and we learned about it. And when I learnt I was actually not in the country and I tried to call the chief to go intervene. He didn't intervene. I called the next person. Nobody wanted to help. And then I eventually like connected to the highest police in the country who now started ordering everybody down to go save the girl. And it was really about showing... 'Cause I negotiated with chief, go support the girl. He's like, you know, he took everything lightly. And so I went to the next stage and that's where the law comes in really. When you have the law, it can protect you. So we had to show them that if, you know, we had to show them. So we had to rescue that girl, we had to make sure that the chief was on top. And from that day he came to the school and he told every parent in that school no one should touch a girl who goes to this school. He made everybody sign a contract that they cannot. So every single year when we take the students into our school, the chief comes and talks to the parents about FGM and how they're not going to go through FGM, how they're not gonna marry their daughter. And it has become like normal. And then now we've started education. Of course, the girls also themselves have become role models. They're also training other girls and it just became normal. Like nobody now like even talks about trying to force these girls into FGM because everybody's like, don't touch those girls because you have no idea what to come after you.

- Yes. The power of angry Kakenya. I think would be a force to be reckoned with. Was there another question down here? Tash, just behind you. Sorry, in front of you.

- So thank you so much. So just wanna ask that it must be very difficult to establishing a girl school in the community. So what kind of difficulties that you have been like experiencing like when you're establishing such a organization and school in your community?

- Thank you for that question. We faced a lot when we were starting. I was a student at the University of Pittsburgh so I was not on the ground every day. I had been talking to the elders in the community I want to build a school and, you know, the men are like, "Yeah, we can give you to build a school." Of course they told me, "Oh, why don't we do a boys school first?" And I had refused. I said we want to build a girl school. And I will go and have meetings and, once it's just men who came to the meetings and then I said, no, I want the women to come to the meeting. And eventually the women would come to the meeting and then the men would leave. It was really tough to like bring the whole and then I made the decision that we start with the women. So we started with the women, started building, the hardest part was that, you know, most of the women are not educated. So they will tell me that they don't know how to count the money, they don't know how to open a bank account. And I said, no, I'll take these women. We'll use the signature of like your thumb to open the bank account. And the men were so not happy with us at all. And eventually, you know, they started seeing us build school and then we continued and then we continued and then the more they saw us succeeding, they started coming back and the chief would say, "Oh, let's make a committee that also has men in it." So we included the men and it just, and then now they, if you go to the community now, you wouldn't think it's the community that we were starting with. It's like, everybody's proud of what we have done. They went from what do women know what to do? And the challenge I had, one is that I grew up, my family was very poor, so I didn't have a status of the family. My dad was not present. I was a little, they considered me a little girl. I had, you know, because I was, I had not been married. I was this person. So they just said, what is this child teaching us? But eventually we sustained. It was tough. It was tough. Sometimes they would come and say, we spoil the girls. I mean, the girls can tell you many stories how they were sometimes just like, say you're spoiling the girls. They shouldn't be, you know, eating this. They should not, there was so much stuff, but we persevered. And through the successes of these young women, when they did their national exam and they excelled, when they're excelling in high school, when they're excelling now, graduating, it's just that has been, they the girls changed the community and they're the ones that shown that empowering girls to something is so perseverance.

- Great. Yes. I've got a couple of questions here that I'm gonna try and combine into one. First of all, Jane Hanahan who is our chair of academic board said, "Thank you for sharing your inspirational story. Your village agreed to let you go overseas to study I'm sure after much convincing. If you were to return, how have attitudes changed in your village with regards to educating girls?" And I think you've touched on that. But the other question here is what happens to the girls that don't get into your school? You know, it's obviously you can't educate everyone. I'm sure there are people that miss out. So how do you, you have attitudes changed and also how do you deal with the people that might wanna come but can't get in.

- The attitude have really changed. I mean, the young women there sitting, everybody wants to send their good daughters to school. It's not even a question now, it's competition. And I mean, the line sometimes that like Kakenya, please help us. So there's so much demand and people want opportunities. So we are trying to guide them on how, you know, if we can take them in our own schools, where else can we support them? So we have girls that we can support in other private schools around the country. And those who cannot come to my school, I talked about our Health and Leadership Training program. That program really is about, because one of the things is that knowing what, you know, it's about knowledge, providing the community with knowledge, I didn't know about what FGM was until I went to college. I mean, that's when I learned about the effects and all those things. So knowledge is powerful. So we have put in this training which we put it in fifth grade, in sixth grade, seventh grade and eighth grade. And what we are doing there is like, literally starting from the basics, we talk health in terms of becoming of age, we talk about, menstrual period is a big problem. So many girls would stay home because they don't have menstruation period. So we provide sanitary pads. And then just talk about what the FGM is. And girls start saying no because they know what it is. Now, we talk about the law when it comes to, you know, we just have, it's really a whole training program that, at least even if they don't come to my school, they are trained on what those things is and then they can make their informed decisions. And we also to work with their parents. So we've seen a bit of a lot of support on that end when we do the trainings, but we still lack because most of our communities don't have enough resources. I think our Peyian just told you there are 16 of them in their home. So what normally happens in that case, a girl is left out. They don't teach, educate the girl. They will educate the boy when there're limited resources. So we'll try to apply for scholarships and just do what we can, but that's where the reality is. There's the need, there's a big bid. And that's why we are expanding in terms of our schools to be able to take more.

- Yes, well, that's great news to hear that you are building and you'll triple your capacity soon. So I think we can all try and help by donating as well. Okay. Oh yeah. We might take one more and then I think we might have to wrap up.

- [Male] Thank you so much Dr. Ntaiya for your talk and the amazing work you're doing. Really, really inspiring to hear. I've got a question for Peyian and Cynthia actually which was, what are some of the good things that you've liked noticed in terms of coming over here and being taken care of for Women for Change and what are some of the things and to the universities as well? And what are some of the things that could be improved?

- Can I go first?

- Yeah, you go first.

- Okay. So coming to Australia, Australia changed my life because, okay, compared to the other girls who are in Kenya, or let's say at Sydney Uni when we come to the lecture hall. So they lecturers will teach like very clearly and they really make sure that you understand.

- Oh, your mic's not working. Is it all right?

- I'm not sure.

- No, you're right. Oh yeah. We'll just wait a sec. We'll give you one of the handhelds. That's a good idea. Exactly rockstar. Put it up to your mouth.

- Thank you. So, for example, during the lectures here, when we come to the lecture halls, the lecturer is present. They deliver the content very well. Also on Canvas, you can get the recorded lectures. But unlike, so compared to my friends in Kenya, so they normally tell me how their classes goes. Sometimes the lecturers are changed. And you can't find like extra content on Canvas that you can go through to understand whatever they were teaching, but here the lecturer really makes sure that you understand everything. Yeah. And that's really good. And also coming to Sydney, so when I was new or in my first year, I didn't really know how to use the computer very well. But right now, I'm very good at it. Yeah.

- That's great. What about you Cynthia? What's worked well and what could be improved?

- Well, I studied in a University in Kenya as I told you before for two years. And as a nursing student, not going on any placement during that period is so bad because now my classmates, well, from there the university have like placements every day, they can't go on holidays. They literally have no holiday break because once you're out of class, you're in placements. It's not easy for them. And, well, it was a starting university, so they didn't have many lecturers. And some of the lecturers have retired. They're really taking it hard. They have to do everything on their own, the research projects on their own. And I kind of pity them or I feel like that I'm here at GTS, the classrooms are big, smaller. I mean, it's a more interactive session. I have literally half the number of classmates I had last year. And I get opportunity to talk as a shy girl. No one noticed me the other university because I never asked questions. But here they lecturer would literally make me speak and practice.

- And it's a good thing.

- So that's a good and a bad thing.

- Yeah. It's a good thing for most of the part. And yes, there's just lots of opportunities here. There's support systems at the university. There's Women for Change supporting. Literally everyone is supportive and, yeah, it's a good thing to develop me career-wise and the bad things, I'm not sure. Just the food.

- And food can be improved. Food can be improved.

- Yes. The food. Yeah, we've already talked about the food a lot today.

- Since Peyian's here.

- I'm gonna have to come...

- Another good thing that has happened is I know how to use Google Maps now. I've never used Google Maps before. Yeah, I've never used Google Maps before. And in Kenya, well, the next person you find is your map, but here you can't ask anyone or everyone for direction. So you have to figure it out on your own. And another good thing is my family gets to use a smartphone now because they have to find ways of communicating with me. Communication would've been so difficult because, well, before, my mom wouldn't have known what a smartphone looks like, but now she's forced to know how to use a smartphone, social media and stuff like that because she has to find ways of communicating with me. And that's a good thing. Yeah.

- Yeah. That's awesome. I didn't think about that. The kind of spread of technology as you said in that that it affects your family and the positive impact is far and wide. Well, thank you very much Peyian and Cynthia for joining us. And of course, thank you so much Kakenya for joining us tonight. I'm so sorry you couldn't be here with us. And I really hope that you don't feel too unwell and you just have to be bored in your hotel room for seven days. But we are glad you made it to Australia and yes, we thank you very much. I'd like to thank the team at Sydney Ideas especially the quick turnaround when we realized that Kakenya couldn't be here today. And the podcast of this event will be available on the Sydney Ideas website early next week. We'd also really love for you to join us next Wednesday, the 25th of May for another great event with Teela Reid on the eve of Reconciliation Week. And again, all of the info is on the Sydney Ideas website. We really appreciate all of you coming. Thank you for watching, those online and particularly thank you for those that joined us in the room tonight. Good night.

- Peyian wants to talk.

- Okay, so I also wanted to thank the University of Sydney for giving me an opportunity to do my undergraduate here. And also I would like to thank the Women for Change and LBW Trust for supporting us through this journey. Yeah. Thank you so much. We really appreciate you.

- Sorry. Thank you.

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Dr Kakenya Ntaiya. Photo supplied courtesy of Women For Change.

Dr Kakenya Ntaiya. Photo supplied courtesy of Women For Change.

About the speaker 

Dr Kakenya Ntaiya founded Kakenya’s Dream to educate girls, end harmful traditional practices including FGM and child marriage, and transform her community. In 2009, the Kakenya Center for Excellence boarding school opened its doors, serving 30 vulnerable Maasai girls. Today, Kakenya’s Dream reaches thousands of young girls, boys, and community members across rural Kenya each year through several holistic, girl-centered programs. 

Kakenya was featured in Bill Gates’ Heroes in the Field series in 2022 and Melinda French Gates’ book, The Moment of Lift in 2019. She is also a proud Top Ten CNN Hero and National Geographic Emerging Explorer. Dr. Ntaiya was honored to receive the Feminist Majority Global Women’s Rights Award from the Feminist Majority Foundation in 2013 and the Vital Voices Global Leadership Award in 2008. She was also counted among the Women Deliver 100 Most Inspiring People Delivering for Girls and Women.

You can learn more about Kakenya at www.kakenyasdream.org, through her TED Talks “A girl who demanded school” and “Empower a girl, transform a community,” and read about her work in publications such as National Geographic and the Washington Post.