09/27/2011 04:55 pm ET | Updated Nov 27, 2011

Wangari Maathai and Education of Girls in Africa

In an overwhelmingly patriarchal society as my home country Kenya, it is very hard to imagine that a woman can rise to the stature of being mentioned in the same breath as humanitarian luminaries like Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. From a society that has been very adamant to invest in the education of girls, forcing the little women into marriages with men old enough to be their grandfathers, how could one of them become an icon of global leadership in a continent riddled with corrupt despots?

The late professor Wangari Maathai, the daughter of a farm-hand working under a British settler in colonial Kenya, did it and won a Nobel Peace Prize while at it. In September 2005, I had the privilege of briefly meeting Professor Maathai in New York. It was during my first week in the United States and I was delighted to meet such a warm, lively person who everyone back home fondly referred to as "Mother Nature." Looking at her, I saw what could be the future of Africa if the world invested in the education and empowerment of African girls.

While the plight of girls in Africa isn't as drastic as it was when Professor Maathai was growing up, there is still a lot left to be done. Female literacy rates remain considerable lower than those of males in Sub- Saharan Africa. Harmful cultural practices, including female genital mutilation, forced marriages and child labor are still rampant, undermining the dignity of women and denying little girls' access to education. Also, the pervasive gender-based violence and sexual coercion exposes young girls to early pregnancies and HIV/AIDS.

Reproductive health empowerment still remains an unaffordable privilege as girls and women have inadequate access to health care. Absence of sanitary pads makes it difficult for girls to attend school during menstruation. Eventually, girls drop out of school at a young age, increasing their chances to engage in prostitution or early marriages. Limited availability of contraception, as well as the education to promote safe- sex practices, has forced teenage girls into unsafe abortions, some of which have resulted to infertility and death.

These obstacles have denied almost half of the continent's population full participation in economic and social advancement of Africa. But Wangari Maathai is the leading reminder that an Africa Renaissance is only possible through the liberation and empowerment of our women. Her contribution to democracy, women's rights, economic development and environmental conservation is potent in every African girl only if they are afforded the opportunity.

African men, the main culprits in the plight of women, need to be at the forefront in challenging the afflictions that encumber gender equality. Our dismissal of educated women as being "too strong-minded," as Professor Maathai's husband said of her during their divorce, exposes our insecurity and fear towards a change that's inevitable regardless. In her defiance to African patriarchy, Professor Maathai refused to conform to the sanctions of subordination, dependency and timidity, placed on the African woman by society. Her achievements in political leadership, economic and environmental sustainability should haunt every African male chauvinist in customary slumber. They should also spur action in every man and woman who believes that the hope of a continent is dependent on women in classrooms and in high places.