Engaging the custodians of tradition and culture: Leveraging the role of multiple actors in Maasai girls’ education

The education of girls living in Maasailand in Kenya’s arid and semi-arid regions presents many challenges. This policy brief explores how deep-seated perceptions embedded in Maasai culture hold girls’ back. This research looks in depth at Kajiado and Narok counties, both predominantly Maasai areas that have some of the lowest school enrollment and completion rates in the country. Drawing from her own experience as founder of Let Maasai Girls Learn, the author contributes much-needed analysis and data on the status of girls’ education in Maasailand. The brief explores how factors like Female Genital Mutilation, childhood marriage, a preference for boys, environmental factors like drought and famine, and the burden of household chores mitigate against the education of Maasai girls. Gaps in current policy frameworks and interventions in the Maasai community are outlined, along with detailed proposals for engaging
key gatekeepers who are pivotal to getting (and keeping) Maasai girls in school. A key takeaway is that, too often, well-meaning governmental and non-governmental interventions intended to help Maasai girls have alienated elders and overlooked the value of community-led solutions grounded in existing Maasai social and cultural capital.

In this video, Damaris Seleina Parsitau, 2017 Echidna Global Scholar, describes her work with Massai girls in Kenya.

The Maasai people of Kenya and Tanzania encounter many challenges in offering girls access to education and ensuring they stay and complete their schooling. Maasai culture is heavily patriarchal, with distinct socio-cultural norms and practices that set them apart from other ethnic groups in Kenya. These norms have affected women and girls in several mostly negative ways, particularly related to education. The custodians of tradition and culture—not lawmakers—are the main decisionmakers in these communities and the implementation of national laws and policies related to education have had little effect. These elders, community and spiritual leaders, formally elected leaders, youth, and warriors wield so much power, influence, and authority in their communities that their cooperation and participation in changing the status quo in their communities is essential.

As the stewards of traditional rites of passage, these gatekeepers pass these rites and cultural values and norms from one generation to the other. Given their tremendous and unquestioned power within their communities, elders continue to perpetuate and promote socio-cultural practices such as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and child marriage—huge barriers standing in the way of Maasai girls’ education. Studies have shown that many of these cultural and traditional barriers are keeping girls out of school. A Kenya Primary Education Development (PRIEDE) Project, for example, found that socio-cultural factors such as FGM and early marriage, which stands at 42.4 percent, stood out as some of the main reasons associated with low
participation in school for children from Arid and semi-Arid (ASAL) regions. Other barriers examined in this paper include drought, famine, social inequality, and persistent marginalization of pastoralists by government officials and policymakers.

In ASAL regions, where the majority of Maasai live, a significant proportion of children have never been to school (PRIEDE Project 2017). According to the Ministry of Devolution and Planning (2015), an estimated 1.9 million children age 6-13 years and 2.7 million children age 13-17 years are out of school. Nearly half (46 percent) of these children and adolescents are concentrated in ASAL counties, such as Kajiado, Narok, Samburu, and Turkana. In these regions, socio-cultural practices, as well as drought and famine, are major barriers to education attainments. The gross primary enrollment rate (GER) in most ASAL counties is below 50 percent, compared to the national average of 119.6 percent.

Maasai girls’ education is frequently the focus of significant interventions by both local and international organizations, national governments, development agencies, advocacy groups, and individuals. Yet, despite tremendous efforts and goodwill by these actors, Maasai girls’ enrollment, completion, and transition rates still remain critically and comparatively low to girls from non-ASAL regions of the country.

This research seeks to explore ways to engage community leadership and leverage Maasai culture to let Maasai girls learn. Premised on the understanding that community-led solutions where local actors are fully engaged and approached with cultural sensitivity and respect, this research examines and proposes ways to engender more sustainable solutions to promoting Maasai girls’ education.

This paper analyzes the current state of Maasai girls’ education and why their educational outcomes matter. Drawing from my personal experiences and narratives of Maasai women, girls, men, community leaders and youth, coupled with literature and evidence, I identify the persistent barriers to Maasai girls’ access to primary and secondary schooling. With findings from recent ethnographic research among these groups, in addition to reflecting on my own perspectives and experiences as a Maasai woman who understands these barriers very well, I provide recommendations for various stakeholders in education and development to more effectively engage Maasai leadership for Maasai girls’ education.

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Photo credit: Jonathan Torgovnik (CC BY-NC 4.0)