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Scientist Profiles

Dr. Damaris Seleina Parsitau

Director and Lecturer at the Institute of Women, Gender & Development Studies, Egerton University, Research Associate at Harvard University and Founder of Let Maasai Girls Learn

A Global Scholar at the Brookings Institutions and researcher on religion, gender, and public life who is creating leadership opportunities for women and youth and working with the custodians of culture to create change for girls and women.
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Dr. Damaris Seleina Parsitau is passionate about Maasai girls going to school. Incredibly, she was the first girl from her village and the second in her county to earn a PhD. Growing up in Kajiado, Dr. Parsitau remains extremely grateful to her parents for allowing her to go to school and for never creating any pressure for her to leave school early and get married. Unlike so many Maasai girls, especially of her generation, she was able to fully embrace academia, through Kipsigis Girls High School to her higher learning at Egerton University. After graduating, due to the high need for lecturers at Egerton University as well as a kindly encouraging professor, Dr. Parsitau found herself teaching philosophy and religious studies.

It was during this period that she begun to consider the role of religion and culture in the oppression of women. She thought back to her class in primary school and reflected on the fact that none of her fellow female classmates made it to university.

In her entire village only two women, including Dr. Parsitau, made it to higher learning. A burning desire to enact real change in her community began to build and take hold of her. After further research into gender studies, she felt that social sciences should be able to speak to social, cultural and political issues in Kenya. She conceptualized how faith based organizations intersect with women empowerment, gender based violence and a multitude of problems that she found were often interconnected with cultural and religious concepts. She begun to create a strategy.

“For me to make an impact, men must be my allies,” she begins. It may seem at odds with female empowerment but begins to make sense once the issue is contextualized. In most Maasai communities, men are still the gatekeepers. They are the ones who hold all the power and sway and ability to support an initiative for the education of the girl child or block it. But Dr. Parsitau cannot stop there.

With her new initiative, Let Maasai Girls Learn, she encourages not just formal education but mentorship roles as well, where young girls can see the examples of women like her who were driven to follow through on their education and lead successful lives as adults. The initiative must be as nuanced as the issue itself. Lack of education of the girl child does not only happen when parents refuse to take their daughters to school but also when adolescent pregnancies occur or early child marriages force a girl to drop out of school. As a result, she declares that her approach is never to condemn culture but to instead work with the custodians of it to make a change.

Dr. Parsitau is living proof of that known adage that she too quotes, “when you educate a child, you educate a village.” “Education saved my life,” she says emphatically and with her initiative, she will go on to save many more.

Follow Dr. Parsitau on Twitter (@DParsitau)

Learn more at: www.brookings.edu/blog/education-plus-development/2017/07/25/how-girls-education-intersects-with-maasai-culture-in-kenya/

Mawazo Institute