During President Obama’s recent travels to Kenya and Ethiopia, he had the opportunity to meet a 16-year-old girl named Linet Momposhi Nenkoitol during a civil society roundtable held at Kenyatta University in Nairobi. She shared with the President her efforts to pursue education as a girl in Kenya, compared to one of her primary school friends who, unlike Linet, was forced to be married off at age eleven and had undergone horrific female circumcision. Linet avoided this same fate because she had the fortune to grow up in the same village as Dr. Kakenya Ntaiya, the founder and president of the Kakenya Center for Excellence. Dr. Ntaiya paved a path for girls like Linet by being the first girl to leave her village and earn both her undergraduate and graduate degrees in the United States, with a promise to return and build a school for girls.
As a member of the first group of girls studying at the center starting in 2009, Linet said:
Being at the center ensured that I was away from men who could have shown interest in me. I was also able to focus my mind on class work now that I was not performing domestic chores. The only way to make sure that girls are safe and remain in class is to have them in such centers. This way, we can give millions of girls freedom to excel and in the process bring participate in society development.
Linet is now a Form Two student at Pangani Girls’ High School in Nairobi, the first from her village to attend a national school in Kenya. Linet also shared her dream of becoming a cardiologist and her hope of attending the same school President Obama attended – Harvard University.
In March, the President and Mrs. Obama announced the Let Girls Learn initiative, a U.S. government-wide effort to call attention to the lack of secondary education opportunities for girls worldwide and to encourage and support community-led solutions to reduce barriers that prevent adolescent girls from completing their education. As President Obama noted at the launch:
The best judge of whether or not a country is going to develop is how it treats its women.
President Obama emphasized this message throughout this trip through Kenya and Ethiopia, most visibly in his exchange with Linet. NAFSA also believes in the importance of expanding educational opportunities for women and girls around the world, drawing attention to the issue with the plenary speakers we have featured at our annual conferences over the years, such as Nobel Prize winners Wangari Maathai, Leymah Gbowee, and Tawakkol Karman; author Sheryl WuDunn; Malala Fund cofounder Shiza Shahid; as well as Dr. Ntaiya, to name a few. Numerous studies show that increased education for women results in higher confidence, later marriage, lower birth rates, and increased employment productivity and wages, which benefit not just individual women, but entire families, communities, and countries. It is by supporting initiatives like Let Girls Learn that we can help fulfill the dreams of girls like Linet, and transform the world for the better.