On Sept. 15, the United Nations Population Fund released its annual report on world population growth, women’s health and development, and the progress made and challenges faced in addressing these critical global issues. Amidst the enormity of the demographic figures and political controversies facing the UNFPA, it is easy to forget the individuals behind its work. To remind us, UNFPA youth advisor Kakenya Ntaiya shares her story.

I grew up in a Maasai village in western Kenya. I never had as many opportunities as the boys did. Like every other girl, I was supposed to help my mother raise my younger siblings and prepare to be a young wife. This left me with little time to study, but I wanted very much to be more than someone’s wife. I got up early in the morning to milk the cows and do my household chores, but I was still usually late for school, and every time the teacher would cane me very hard on my hand. Sometimes he made everyone who was late dig out the hard grass outside our school compound.

I have two younger brothers, and they were not assigned any duties at home during school days. Generally, Maasai boys were taught to never be around the kitchen because the kitchen belongs to women. Boys only had to check in the morning if all the cows were there, and if none of them had been stolen, they took breakfast and off to school they went. This was meant to instill in them the idea of protecting their wealth. Maasai men own everything, including their wives. The belief among the Maasai elders is that girls belong to the family into which they will marry, so a girl’s education is believed to benefit her husband and not her family. This idea prevents Maasai families from investing in a girl child. As a result, a girl will generally get married at an early age, sometimes 12, to a man her parents and the village elders choose for her. Some girls become the second, third, or fourth wife, and sometimes the men are three times their age.

I was very lucky. I negotiated with my father to let me finish school, and then I negotiated with the elders in my village to win their help in coming to America for college. I promised I would return to help build a school and a maternity hospital so others in my village can be educated and stay healthy. I believe girls’ education is very important because women play a central role in all essential aspects of society, from food production to health care to childbearing.

Early in primary school, a home science class introduces basic hygiene. I remember being taught that if I boil or filter the water we fetch from the river, it will kill bad bacteria. I also learned that if I drink unboiled cold milk, I risk getting tapeworm. I learned that if I did not wash my hands before eating, I could get other kinds of worms and diseases. These are basic health issues that people in America take for granted, but where I come from, if girls are not educated about this, the whole community suffers.

Education enlightens girls and women about the need to control their reproductive and sexual lives in order to prevent and cope with HIV/AIDS. Girls also learn several methods of family planning so that they do not have children they can’t take care of. It is sad to note that even when women do not have power over their sexual activities, they are mostly blamed if they give birth to many children.

Girls’ education is especially important in developing counties that depend on agriculture. Where I come from, as in much of Africa, women do most of the farming work. When women learn better agricultural methods, productivity increases. Traditions in some societies define the roles of women as collecting and fetching the natural resources for family use, such as water and fuel wood. Therefore educating women about how to maintain and improve the environment around them is important for everyone in the world.

The most powerful obstacles to girls’ education are poverty and tradition. But these can be changed. Institutions like the United Nations Population Fund work with governments, community-based organizations, and religious and community leaders to provide women and girls the health care, information, and most important – education – they need to improve not only their own lives, but those of their families and communities as well.

I find it sad to learn that the Bush administration has refused to fund the UNFPA for three consecutive years. This is because of false allegations – disproved by countless sets of experts – that UNFPA is supporting coercive abortions in China. In fact, the UNFPA has demonstrated success in reducing coerced abortion in China. And in sub-Saharan Africa, it is supporting critical projects to address child marriage, female genital mutilation, obstetric fistula and many other problems.

It is time that the Bush administration look beyond China to hear the cries of the millions of girls in other countries who are married off at age 12, who give birth without trained nurses, who undergo female genital mutilation, and who are unable to attend school because they lack money for school fees. The women in my village in Kenya are waiting for the kind of help that UNFPA provides. I wish President Bush could come to my home and talk to us; then he might change his mind.

Kakenya Ntaiya is a youth adviser to UNFPA, the UN Population Fund.

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