Rebecca W. Ellison
Challenging Cultural Expectations of Maasai Women through Education
Updated: Nov 20, 2020
Photo courtesy of Einoth Francis Mollel pictured in green and white
Einoth Francis Mollel’s night journey to escape a forced marriage opened the doors to her right to an education, health, and consent in marriage. Her flight of courage inspires both women and men today to challenge cultural norms and aspire towards education and economic prosperity for themselves and their families.
A Journey towards Self-Reliance
A young woman from a rural Maasai village in the Arusha region of Tanzania was asleep in the female-only mud hut owned by her parents when a family friend, identified by her parents to be her husband, received his consent to take her as his fourth wife. At a young age she developed curiosity, cleverness, and a strong will, and was determined to chart a course she chose for herself which included at least primary and secondary schooling. Undaunted further by the English language requirement as the language of instruction for secondary school she persisted to continue learning in spite of a difficulty achieving high grades and examination scores.
That evening, however, the dream dimmed as she awoke to face the consequence of the visitor now in her hut. In the darkness he pulled out a bottle of strange pills he claimed he received from a Nairobi hospital to treat an unknown condition he contracted while living in Nairobi. While in secondary school she served as head of the Young Catholics Association and would visit patients in hospitals receiving treatment for HIV and who were on antiretroviral medication to reduce the effects of HIV. The experience at this moment served her well. The pills produced that evening appeared identical to those she had seen administered to patients in the hospital she had visited. Guided by intuition she asked the guest to delay consummation and she lied to him about being on her period to avoid sex. He reluctantly agreed and left her alone again to contemplate her circumstance and to prepare for their union.
Though she was raised within the traditions of the Maasai community, her parents also recognized it was against the law to force their children to follow these practices. Nonetheless, they strongly implored her to follow the customs in honor of her cultural heritage. Those who choose not to follow customs face years of reproof and ridicule as a means of social control for others who attempt to follow this example. However, according to section 16 of The Law of Marriage Act of Tanzania a marriage cannot be contracted except if consent, freely and voluntarily is given, by each of the parties thereto. Not only was consent not obtained but she had already reached age 18 and considered an adult by Tanzanian law, thereby, rendering the Maasai marriage invalid. The customs of her tribe, her village, and her parents could not override the clear provisions of the law of marriage act of Tanzania.
Einoth Francis Mollel recognized the crisis of the moment. She refused to be essentially raped by the visitor her parents brought to her hut. What would have been an unthinkable plan given the remoteness of her village, she crept from her parent’s home and headed into a pitch-black and rain-drenched night to run towards her future, and possibly, her life. She steered through a wildlife sanctuary throughout the remaining night until she reached a highway in the early morning hours. After some hours she found safe passage to Arusha and met a few helpful strangers, catholic nuns who provided transportation, access to phones, food, shelter, work, as well as the means to complete her secondary education in Arusha, Tanzania.
Over time her journey was not without difficulties as she also encountered threats of sexual violence from an employer and acquaintances as well as
Photo courtesy of Einoth Francis Mollel
a false accusation that led to brief imprisonment in a local jail in Arusha. She managed to persist, however, to earn a bachelor’s and master’s degree in Nairobi, Kenya and returned to Arusha to take care of her younger siblings whom she ensured would also receive formal education and training under her care and supervision.
The Implications of Child Marriages and the Rise of HIV/AIDS Infections Among Women
In Tanzania one third of girls are married before they reach their eighteenth birthday. Approximately 25% of these girls have their first child before reaching adulthood. As a result, few are able to complete secondary school education, which is closely linked to better health outcomes, smaller families, and higher income earning potential. Children whose mothers are under the age of 18 are more likely to have a lower life expectancy, higher rates of stunting, and lower learning outcomes.
According to the Pastoral Women’s Council, a non-profit organization in Tanzania that supports educational development and empowerment of Maasai women, in 2008 approximately 3 girls under the age of 18 ran away from home daily to escape forced marriages. Official data on actual number of runaways is not collected.
Women are also disproportionately impacted by the spread of HIV/AIDS due, primarily, to the gender gaps in the passing of national laws and policies related to the amendment of the Marriage Act and laws against Gender Based Violence. Key drivers of higher rates of HIV among women include: promiscuous sexual behavior, inter-generational sex and concurrent sexual partners, presence of other Sexually transmitted infections ( STIs) , and inadequate comprehensive knowledge of HIV transmission. Infection rates among women are generally higher among urban and other sub populations. According to the National AIDS Control Council, an organization coordinating the Kenyan AIDS response estimated that 30% of Maasai in Kenya in 2008 were living with HIV/AIDS.
Sharing Critical Lessons
Today Einoth maintains cultural and social connections to the Maasai community and uses her story of resolve and determination to inspire a group of 150 women of the importance of self-confidence, assertiveness, and striving for educational achievement for girls and women. As a Coordinator for the Women's Learning Community she also provides instruction on financial planning as well as coaching on how to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS. She is joined by her Maasai colleague who is also the Executive Director of Taretok Child Prosperity who provides technical training in agricultural techniques and animal husbandry. He also shares Maasai cultural stories and
Photo courtesy of Einoth Francis Mollel proverbs including literacy in the Maa
language, and ongoing support of 5 women-led investment groups.
As a team their work connects women to important health education information and forums where they can safely discuss the inherited beliefs that negatively impact women that contribute towards lack of achievement. They share a vision of future prosperous, healthy, and strong Maasai communities upheld by capable, informed, and resilient women.
Einoth joins St. Joseph University in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania as a lecturer teaching Education Administration. She hopes to one day to earn her Ph.D in Education.