Be Inkandescent Magazine interviews Barbara Lee Shaw
The Maasai Girls Education Fund
Her idea was inspired: to improve the literacy, health, and economic well being of Maasai women in Kenya. And so Barbara Lee Shaw created the Maasai Girls Education Fund in 2001.
Throughout the last decade, she and her supporters have helped nearly 90 girls attend and graduate from school. More than a dozen have completed college and gone on to work. Some now work in the medical profession; others have become teachers or embarked on well-paying careers that they otherwise never could have imagined.
The impact of the Maasai Girls Education Fund (MGEF) has been tremendous. Only about half of all Maasai girls enroll in primary school — and only 5 percent of that number go on to secondary school. Most are married off before they turn 15.
“All have changed the way their families, and their communities, view the role and abilities of women,” says Shaw, who got the idea to start the Fund in 2000 when she was traveling through Africa and met a little girl named Ntanin Tarayia.
“She was the only Maasai child who had the courage to come to me and engage me in conversation, and I thought to myself — how can I not help this little girl?” Shaw recalls. “She was obviously smart and brave, and I knew that if I didn’t do something she’d never realize her potential.”
Shaw used her own money to put Ntanin into school. She came home and told her daughter Tracey, an emergency room doctor, about the plight of Maasai girls, and she sponsored another girl. Friends quickly jumped on the bandwagon, and within a year Shaw had helped nearly a dozen Maasai girls enroll in school.
Small gifts make a big difference
Having spent years working in the nonprofit world, Shaw knew she was on to something. In 2001, she created a 501c3 organization and began perfecting her model.
She learned the hard way that while the girls and their mothers often embraced the program, the men in the house weren’t keen on having their daughters become more educated than they were.
“The fathers were more concerned about losing the potential dowry than concerned that their daughters would be better educated than they were,” she says. “It is all about economics. A daughter’s value is in the dowry she brings; they don’t believe there is any economic benefit to educating daughters because the daughter’s husband’s family would reap the benefits.”
Shaw recalls one father in particular who forbade his daughter, Simantoi Kilama, to attend school. She enrolled anyway. He then told all of her brothers and sisters that they could not talk to her. Simantoi accepted that, and while her mother refused to abide by his demand, the young Maasai girl did not talk to any other member of her family until she graduated from university.
Today, Simantoi is a nurse who is the pride of her village — and her father. “She comes home and takes care of everyone,” Shaw relates with pleasure. “She brings money, supplies, and heals the sick. They call her ‘the doctor.’ Her father is now all puffed up about the fact that his child is so revered.”
Shaw tells a similar story of Caroline Santeu Kashinin, who attended college through the program. Today, she is also a nurse. One of her first big purchases was to buy her mother a new modern house. She also pays the school fees for four of her siblings who are still in school.
“Our working graduates contribute considerably more economically to their families every year than a one-time dowry would have brought,” Shaw insists. “It is the changing view toward the economic benefits of educating a daughter that will bring changes in attitudes about educating girls faster than anything else. Mothers do embrace the program, but have no rights in family decisions, so without scholarships, these girls will be married off as soon as they ‘cross the childhood bridge’ as they say, for five cows.”
We talked to Barbara Lee Shaw this month about how her organization operates.
Be Inkandescent Magazine: We understand that MGEF provides scholarships from primary school through university to girls who have never enrolled in school, or who would be forced to drop out of school for cultural or economic reasons.
Barbara Lee Shaw: Yes, and we are committed to each student until they have the knowledge and skills needed to enter the workforce in Kenya. With economic empowerment, this new generation of Maasai women will end early marriages and circumcision of girls and bring greater literacy, health, and economic well being to future generations. We work in partnership with the Maasai community, including local area chiefs and women advocates for education of girls, to achieve our mission.
Be Inkandescent Magazine: MGEF’s Scholarship Program focuses on increasing enrollment of Maasai girls, doing everything possible to ensure that they succeed in school, and giving every student the opportunity for economic independence. Tell us more.
Barbara Lee Shaw: We focus on getting girls in school. MGEF works with the staff in Kajiado, Kenya, and 56 volunteers to identify girls who are not enrolled in school or who are at risk of dropping out of school because of early marriage. The volunteers represent multiple locations throughout the Kajiado, Loitokitok, and Ngong Districts so that benefits are broadly offered.
Be Inkandescent Magazine: As you said earlier, some of the girls who enroll in the program drop out because they get pregnant. How do you keep the girls in school?
Barbara Lee Shaw: MGEF is committed to each student’s success. Girls are enrolled in boarding schools, where they receive better nutrition, structured study time, and health care, and where they are also be away from family and peer pressure to marry when they reach puberty.
Report cards are collected after each term: Kenya schools operate on a trimester system with school breaks in April, August, and December. Any drop in grades is immediately investigated. An MGEF volunteer visits the school and even the family to identify any problems and help to resolve them.
Older students from the same home area or the same school are encouraged to assist younger students in their academic work, and with any emotional problems. When a Maasai girl reaches puberty, she is often conflicted about education. Most of her peers are getting married and starting their families.
Be Inkandescent Magazine: Has it always been that way?
Barbara Lee Shaw: Unfortunately, staying in school is the exception, and a girl is chided by her peers and pressured by her parents to drop out of school and marry between the ages of 12 and 15. A Maasai girl becomes a woman when she is circumcised as preparation for marriage. Circumcision usually occurs around the onset of puberty, sometimes before. Saying “now that she is a woman” does not make it clear how young these girls are when they are viewed as women.
Be Inkandescent Magazine: What happens once they finish their education?
Barbara Lee Shaw: Fostering economic independence is our biggest goal. MGEF staff meets with every secondary school graduate to help them select a school and field of study with a viable job market in Kenya. Our work is not complete until each student has the knowledge and skills to enter the workforce.
Be Inkandescent Magazine: It’s also important to you that you teach other women in the community, such as the girls’ mothers, right?
Barbara Lee Shaw: Most definitely. We host many workshops, but some are for boys and girls to address social customs and cultural beliefs that prevent girls from getting an education, like early marriage, teen pregnancy, female genital cutting, and HIV.
The added component to the boys regarding respect for women also addresses their future role as Maasai men in ending violence against women, including female genital cutting. Workshops for chiefs and elders to raise awareness of the benefits of educating girls, and how some traditions contribute to the spread of HIV, including FGC. Chiefs and elders have all the authority for making change within the culture.
This year we also added business training workshops for rural Maasai women who don’t have the opportunity to receive a more formal education. Two hundred women will receive training this first year.
About Barbara Lee Shaw
Before founding the Maasai Girls Education Fund, Barbara Lee Shaw spent 15 years as chief financial and administrative officer for nonprofit organizations and six years as treasurer of a publicly traded venture capital investment company. She was co-founder of the Center for International Environmental Law in 1989 where she was the Director of Finance and Administration for the first nine years, and continues to serve CIEL as a member of its Board of Directors and chair of the board’s audit committee.
Barbara has worked as an editor for various environmental publications, and as a freelance photographer for nonprofit organizations — including House of Ruth, Mentors, Inc., and Girls Inc., which might reveal where her heart has always been.
Barbara has an MBA from the Simmons Graduate School of Management in Boston and a BA from the University of Maryland. She and her husband, Durwood Zaelke, an international environmental lawyer, have two children — Tracey, an emergency room doctor in Bethesda, Maryland, and Todd, a businessman in Manhattan, Montana. They also have three grandchildren — Cassidy, Hannah, and David, and three step granddaughters, Katie, Annie, and Emily. “And I have 80 Maasai stepdaughters in Kenya that I love with all my heart,” Shaw says.