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Opinion When barriers are lifted, women flourish. The growth in Kenya’s communities prove it

Margaret Trudeau is a mental-health advocate, author, member of the executive advisory board of the UBC Mental Health Institute and WE global ambassador. Kim Campbell was Canada’s 19th prime minister and the founding principal of the University of Alberta’s Peter Lougheed Leadership College.

In the Global South, women are less likely to receive an education and more likely to face violence and discrimination. They have fewer economic opportunities and limited access to resources. They experience hunger, poverty and the effects of climate change at far greater rates.

This is the central contradiction inhibiting development: Women’s voices seem to count for less, and yet, when they are counted, women can uplift whole communities.

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In Narok County – a rural region in Kenya, west of Nairobi – there is a blueprint for sustainable development, run by Canadian non-profit WE Charity, co-founded by Craig Kielburger in 1995. Its strategy implements five pillars – education, clean water, access to health care, sustainable food and economic opportunity – with a goal to phase out of villages after five years, leaving them empowered and self-sustaining.

Visiting the area this week to celebrate WE College, we met pioneering women at every stage of life who embody this transformation. One was Jane Marindany, an eloquent and warm Kipsigis businesswoman and grandmother from Emori Joi, a village in the Maasai Mara. We sat in Mama Jane’s home as hundreds of hand-cut, delicately folded pieces of paper dangled above our heads from the rafters. She could not afford a proper ceiling, she told us through a translator, so her children and grandchildren hung their homework overhead, adorned with tiny loops of perfect English handwriting and the scrawl of math equations. Above us was a poignant reminder of how her family has been transformed, not only by access to quality education, but by the wave of development sweeping the region.

By any measure in her community, Mama Jane is a prosperous woman. She turned a merry-go-round loan program, with 12 women in her village contributing 12,000 Kenyan shillings annually (around $150), into a collective 582-women strong. That collective purchased land, a dairy cow for each woman and a cooler to store their market-bound milk.

Mama Jane started her journey in 2007, and long after WE wound down its work, it continues today. Mama Jane now owns a small herd, serves as the leader of the collective and runs a thriving business. She is able to do all this because she is not walking for hours each day to collect water, she can see a doctor when she gets sick, her family can rely on quality food and there are now schools in her community.

A woman who once scrimped and saved now has more wealth than some Maasai chiefs. And she did it all without a formal education.

Imagine what will happen when the young women of Narok attend college. That’s a reality now; in addition to WE’s primary and secondary schools, the organization’s first college opened in 2017, and young women are breaking gender stereotypes by enrolling. Many will be the first in their families to get a postsecondary education.

There’s a lot of responsibility being the first. Nobody who looked like Kim Campbell had held our country’s highest office when she assumed it. Long-held ideas about who could be prime minister had to shift and expand. And Margaret Trudeau’s efforts to ensure that people know mental-health issues can affect anyone and everyone have helped change the conversation.

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The young trailblazers seeking college degrees in Kenya will create a new normal – a new meaning for possibility.

Before we left Mama Jane’s home, she pulled us aside and honoured us with gifts, given from one woman to another in recognition of leadership: a kikoi, a traditional wrap, and a malingotiet, a beautiful beaded necklace. We offered Mama Jane customary Kenyan gifts of tea, sugar and bread, along with a little bit of home in a moose-themed woollen blanket.

But the real gift we can offer her – and to the women and girls we met who have likewise overcome such obstacles to strive for a better life – is to share her success. We have both dedicated time in our lives and careers to spurring growth and development in rural Africa. It has, in the past, left us feeling weighed down by the challenges that remain. But not this time. We return home to Canada proud and confident that the model works and with renewed conviction that the path to a better world will be trod by empowered women.

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