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Pitt Alumna Fights For Gender Equity in Africa

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Kakenya NtaiyaImagine if, in your community, only 11 percent of women completed high school.

That was the situation in Kakenya Ntaiya’s home village in Kenya. Many girls never matriculate to high school in the first place and those who do often drop out due to pregnancies associated with arranged marriages.

So Ntaiya decided to do something about it.

In 2009, she established a primary school for girls called the Kakenya Center for Excellence. The school provides a comprehensive education in core academic areas. More than that, it makes girls feel valued and confident, like they can achieve anything. This is no small feat in a patriarchal culture that in extreme cases forces genital mutilation on women and pigeonholes women into domesticated roles.

“We are giving girls opportunities; that’s what we do,” said Ntaiya, a 2011 PhD graduate of the University of Pittsburgh School of Education and a recipient of the CNN Hero and Newsweek “150 Women Who Shake the World” awards.

Ntaiya shared inspirational stories of fighting cultural norms and advancing education reform during a special webinar called “Change Makers: Lessons on Leadership and Global Impact.” The one-hour webinar was moderated by Pitt Business Associate Dean Audrey J. Murrell and co-hosted by Pitt Business, the David Berg Center for Ethics and Leadership, the Study Abroad office, the University Center for International Studies, the School of Education, and the World Affairs Council.

Pitt Business co-sponsored the webinar as part of the University of Pittsburgh’s Year of Diversity Initiative, which aims to enhance diversity and inclusion through special programming throughout the 2016-17 Academic Year.

The webinar was also held during the University’s International Week from October 24 – 28, 2016. Ntaiya held several other powerful events during International Week. There was an evening Fireside Chat called “Diversity through the Eyes of Women” that was moderated by Associate Dean Murrell and attended by many business alumnae.  Additionally, Ntaiya gave a Ted Talk-style keynote address called “Empowering Girls to Change the World.”  She interacted with faculty, students, staff and community partners throughout the week.

Citing that her education at the University of Pittsburgh gave her the knowledge and confidence to take on her ambitious reform agenda, Ntaiya encouraged women students and alumnae to be bold and go after their dreams—but to start with a strong education as the foundation.

Indeed, Ntaiya’s own journey is an inspiring example. Born into the Maasai village of Enoosaen in south Kenya, she was supposed to follow the traditional path. Engaged at age 5, she was set to be circumcised as a teenager. This event would end her formal education and prepare her for marriage. But Ntaiya had a different plan.

She negotiated with her father that if she complied with this cultural ritual, he would let her finish high school. Then she negotiated with the village elders to do what no girl had ever done: leave the village to go to college in the United States. She promised she would use her education to benefit the village. The entire village not only let her go, they also collected money to pay for her journey.

Ntaiya received a scholarship to Randolph-Macon Woman’s College. Later she enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh to earn her doctorate. 

Now Ntaiya wants to ensure that other girls can follow their dreams. Her Kakenya Center for Excellence currently has 170 students enrolled in grades four through eight.

“We are changing the culture to disrupt how things are done,” Ntaiya said.

Later this year, the first group of students will graduate. The message she has for the students is that they can use an education to become who they want to be. A lawyer. A doctor. An educator. A businesswoman. The choice is theirs. No one else’s.

“Our goal is to inspire them to dream big,” Ntaiya says.

More Pitt Business Webinars

Visit the 20 for 20 Webinar Series section of the Pitt Business 20th anniversary website. The page includes 20 webinars presented by alumni on a range of business topics.