THE BLOG
05/07/2013 01:15 pm ET | Updated Jul 07, 2013

In Kenya, Land Rights Bring New Hope for Women and Girls

In the classrooms of Ol Pusimoru Secondary School, a cluster of simple cinder block buildings perched on a hillside in the remote Kenyan highlands, Principal Alu Andrew Amadi can see a revolution stirring.

"Always, the number of girls enrolling in this school has been less than 25 percent of the student body. When I arrived to be principal of this school, there were 19 girls enrolled and 70 boys."

Where were all the teenage girls?

Married.

And farming their husband's land to provide food for their young children.

"But this year, for the first time, the number of girls is almost equal to the number of boys," said a beaming Amadi. "This year, we admitted 26 girls out of an entering class of 55."

The starting point in this remarkable story of progress is Kenya's new constitution. Adopted in 2010, it offers women unprecedented rights and protections - including the right to own and inherit land and exert join control over family resources.

But this historic legal change - at least initially - made little difference for women in rural Kenya.

These women, many of whom are illiterate, live in a world governed by tradition.

And this is not unique to Kenya. Many sub-Saharan African countries (from Angola to Uganda) have progressive constitutions that grant women equal rights. But traditional practices dominate and traditional rulers govern--meaning that rural women rarely enjoy those equal rights.

In the case of Kenya, Landesa and its partner, USAID, recognized Kenya would be added to the long list of countries in which women's equal rights are well-meaning but unrealized platitudes on paper unless Kenya's rural residents were educated about the new constitution and convinced that it was in their interest. So in 2011, Landesa and USAID began an innovative pilot project, the Kenya Justice Project, in a remote community in the Rift Valley called, Ol Pusimoru.

Initially, the Maasai and Kalenjin tribal elders in Ol Pusimoru were suspicious, telling us that the new constitution was an "attempt to undermine their culture" and that "women would wield the constitution like a sword." They questioned women's worth and ability to manage land and other family resources and frankly told us that the men of their community would not "carry babies on their back and cook."

But we continued to engage them. And during the project's months of workshops, discussions, and community conversations, tribal elders, who are recognized in the new constitution as part of the justice system, slowly began to realize that their community might be better off if they worked to enforce women's rights - particularly rights to access and manage family resources like land.

They recognized that men had often made their families and communities poorer by selling or leasing land that their family needed to survive, without their spouses knowledge or consent.

And women, eager to gain the skills they needed to play a larger role in their home and community and advocate for themselves, joined in public speaking training.

This short video spotlights the project's substantial impact on the larger community, including: the first women to be elected to the community's council of tribal elders and women gaining more control over family land and other resources.

The impact on Principal Amadi's school is equally powerful. As women gain joint control over their family's land, they are gaining a powerful resource they can use to not only feed their children, but also generate income. And with some control over those funds, thanks to the support of the tribal elders and chiefs, women are earmarking family resources to pay school fees for all of their children - girls included.

And women's new roles as tribal elders and managers of family resources are creating a virtuous cycle - reinforcing the need for girls to be educated so they can assume important family and community responsibilities just like their brothers.

"Parents now are more supportive of girls' education. They believe that now the girls too can play a role in society," explained Principal Amadi. "Previously, parents would not want to spend their money investing in a girl. It is a like a waste of resources."

Parents like Gladys Chepkorir, a widow with two young daughters, now see their daughters in a new light.

"This is my daughter, Kayla. Life has changed for my little girl, my second born," said Gladys, putting her arm around her dimpled 10-year-old. "Before I knew about the rights of girls I didn't see the need to educate her. But now I have set up an account for her education, to give her opportunity. So she has a better chance."

Convincing parents like Gladys, who herself dropped out of school to have her first child at the age of 16, to commit resources to educate their daughters was a huge challenge previously, said local Chief David Sang'are.

Explained single mother Sarah Otuni, "Now I'm looking at my daughters differently. Before I thought they were there to be married. Now I see there is value in educating the girls and the boys because they are all valuable and have a lot to contribute to the family."

The Justice project results indicate that tribal elders and chiefs, often dismissed as obstacles to progress, can transform into advocates for Africa's rural women and girls and be strong partners in helping Africa's Kaylas enroll in school and stay in school.

Deborah Espinosa is a senior attorney and land tenure specialist with Landesa, a global development non-profit that works to secure land rights for the world's poor. Follow their work @Landesa_Global