Priscilla Nankurrai has made it her mission to save young girls from being forced into early marriages against their will. She aids them by offering them the refuge of her boarding school in Kajiado, Kenya.
Girls find their way to the school in many different ways. Nankurrai has a network of informers who let her know when a young girl is slated for marriage, and help her contact those girls with her offer of help. Others are delivered by mothers who want to spare their daughters from being forced to marry much-older men. Sometimes the girls show up at the gates by themselves, having heard about the school from a concerned relative or friend. Nankurrai said, “We never turn a girl away. If we say no, it might be the last time they ever come to school.”
While arranged marriages are a long-standing part of Maasai culture, the age at which girls are being forced into marriage is dropping. Parents used to wait until their daughters reached puberty, at around 14 or 15, to arrange their marriages. Now, Nankurrai reports that girls as young as 9 and 10 are being married.
No one can be certain why this is happening. Some believe that greedy fathers, anxious to claim their daughters’ marriage dowries, are the cause. Maasi development consultant Naomi Kipury disagrees. She contends that the lowered age for marriage was sparked by fears that schools empower girls and lead many to reject aspects of the Maasai culture. She argues that parents want to limit the amount of schooling their daughters receive by marrying them off early. “I think some parents are trying to get their children out of school to marry them quickly and regain control,” Kipury explained.
Not all members of the Maasai community oppose the school. One elderly father who had opposed the school is now a staunch advocate. He explained, “Some people say that if you educate girls they will become prostitutes. But I think girls need to be educated, they will get good jobs and make a good future for themselves.”