Kakenya Ntaiya, Kenya
Kakenya Ntaiya's story shows how education can change all the cards in the hand a young girl is dealt at birth. The oldest of eight children of a Maasai tribal family, she was engaged to be married when she was five years old. She grew up caring for cattle and her siblings in a small village 20 miles from the nearest paved road. She often was the only person to help her mother give birth in their hut. She was expected to undergo ritual circumcision at puberty, leave school and marry the man her parents had chosen.
Kakenya had other ideas. She told her father she would undergo the circumcision only if she could stay in school. Her father agreed, and at 13 she joined the estimated 2 million women who have suffered female genital cutting worldwide.
Undeterred, Kakenya finished high school with top marks and decided she wanted to attend college – in the United States. No girl in her village had ever done that. So she negotiated again, this time with the village elders. If they let her go, she promised, she would come back and help build a school and a maternity hospital.
It worked. The village women united to raise the money to send Kakenya to the United States. They knew pregnancy in Kenya often means death: one in every 19 women will die there of complications in pregnancy and childbirth, one of the world's highest rates.
Kakenya graduated from Randolph-Macon Women's College in 2004, and her mother came from Kenya to attend the ceremony. Kakenya went on to a PhD program in education at the University of Pittsburgh, determined to become a leader in helping others get an education in Kenya. She has now raised more than US$75,000 toward the school she promised to build in her village. Kakenya's success has inspired millions of people. She has been the subject of a Washington Post series, a BBC documentary and many magazine articles. She married in 2006 and is expecting her first child in September 2007.
"Now all the village women want their daughters to stay in school," she tells audiences throughout the world. Visit her website: www.kakenyasdream.org