*Featured image and video: Kate Rafferty

Engaged when she was five-years-old, Dr Kakenya Ntaiya’s future was laid out for her. She was expected to undergo female genital mutilation and marry by the age of 12.

“We come from a community where the best thing that can happen to a girl is to be married at the age of 12, 13 or 14,” she told a crowded room at the University of Technology Sydney’s first International Women’s Day lunch.

A renowned women’s rights advocate and educator, Dr Ntaiya spoke of her mission to give girls in her community the chance to dream – something she now achieves through her “Kakenya’s Dream” education program.

To be a wife and a mother was simply the expected way of life for any girl from Dr Ntaiya’s small Maasai village of Enoosaen in Kenya.

“I was drawn to these girls because… I knew that each of them was going to live the life that I had lived.”

While she attended school, she said girls were “reduced to the same household role”; spending the day sweeping the classroom, collecting water and firewood for the teachers, and cooking.

“We were told that everything we were doing would make us better wives for when we got married.

“I decided that I was going to change the story for women in my country.”

In 2009, Dr Ntaiya opened the doors to the first Kakenya Center for Excellence boarding school – running a program that equipped girls with the skills needed for a brighter, more opportunistic future.

After partnering with Women For Change, they started offering top students the opportunity to study overseas.

Three of those graduates joined Dr Ntaiya on stage in Sydney. Sharon Tiyo, Linet Momposhi and Peyian Kortom are now studying at UTS, the University of Sydney and Western Sydney University.

Back in Kenya, their school has since expanded to a second campus, and Kakenya’s Dream has led to the enrolment of 500 girls who now live free of female genital mutilation and child marriage.

— Kate Rafferty @katerafferty99