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Barnard hosts premier “Women in the World on Campus” event

On Tuesday, April 17, Barnard welcomed Kenyan activist and educator Dr. Kakenya Ntaiya for the premier event in the Women in the World on Campus Speaker Series, a new initiative of Newsweek & The Daily Beast and the Women in the World Foundation. Ntaiya, the president and founder of the Kakenya Center for Excellence, the first primary school for girls in the Keyian region of Kenya's Trans Mara district, participated in a one-on-one discussion with Louise Roug, an editor at the Daily Beast, and spoke to an audience of Barnard students and faculty about her personal experience of attaining education and achieving independence against great odds.

President Debora Spar made introductory remarks, noting the important work that the Women in the World Foundation is doing to engage college students in its broader mission of advancing women and girls. Kim Azzarelli, Newsweek & The Daily Beast’s vice president of new ventures and president of the Women in the World Foundation, spoke about Women in the World’s main objectives: convening women leaders in various sectors, mapping worldwide efforts to empower women, and connecting the next generation of women everywhere.

In response to Roug’s interview-style questions, Ntaiya described her childhood in rural Kenya, where girls are taught to be wives and mothers, and boys are taught to be warriors. When girls reach puberty, there is a tradition of female genital cutting, which signifies the onset of womanhood and readiness for marriage. For most women, this also signifies the end of schooling. But when Ntaiya finished primary school, she went to her father and offered him a deal: if he would allow her to continue ending school and delay her marriage, she would agree to participate in the genital cutting ceremony as expected. If not, she would run away, bringing shame to her family. Her father agreed to her terms, and she went on to finish high school. At that point, she went to the village elders and asked for permission and support to attend college – something no woman from her village had ever done before.

“I told these men, if I go, I will come back and do whatever I can for the village,” Ntaiya said. With their approval and that promise, she attended Randolph-Macon Women’s College in Virginia. “My whole world opened up. My village had no news, no Internet. I learned the beauty of being in a place where you have information.”

Previously, she hadn’t known that female genital cutting was illegal in Kenya. But with that information, she began working to raise awareness about this practice in her community, as well as the lack of opportunity and limited education available to women. She started a school for girls in her village, and is preparing to launch a community center that will further empower women. She recently completed her PhD at the University of Pittsburgh, and is continuing to advocate for women’s rights not only in her village, but throughout Kenya and around the world.

“Now that I’ve been given an opportunity, I keep thinking, what can I do to help girls in the same situation I was in?” said Ntaiya. “When you see their faces, you just want to do more. They have such massive dreams.”

Following the premier event at Barnard on April 17, Roug and Ntaiya will hold similar conversations this week at Rutgers University and Harvard University, as Women in the World on Campus continues its pilot event series.