On the surface, Dr. Josephine Kulea is like many moms: she has two children, ages 12 and 17. She gets up in the morning, makes them breakfast, then she goes to work. She grew up with an education and graduated from nursing school. Outside of work, she spends time with her children, family, and friends. But these things many women in the U.S. take for granted, are not standard for many girls around the world, particularly in rural Kenya.
Dr. Kulea comes from a pastoral community called The Samburu, located in the north of Kenya. As part of their culture, girls as young as age 6 are “beaded”— given beaded necklaces that label them as sexual partners for their male relatives. Many members of the community believe beading prepares girls for marriage and prevents promiscuity. Because pregnancy with relatives is forbidden, these young girls often undergo crude abortions, resulting in physical and mental trauma. Some girls are no longer able to have children because of damage to their bodies from multiple abortions. Girls are later forced to marry at a young age and abandon their education. And when they are married, they are expected to undergo female circumcision as a rite of passage. Although these practices are now illegal in Kenya, they are still widespread, estimated at nearly 90% of the Samburu and surrounding communities.
Dr. Kulea is working tirelessly to change this.
Her mother, who was taken out of high school to become a third wife, fought for Josephine to stay in school and finish her education. After receiving her nursing degree, Dr. Kulea learned that FGM was not a common practice among the other communities, and she felt compelled to make a difference.
When she returned home, she began by rescuing two of her younger cousins, ages 10 and 7, who were to be married to a man many years their senior. What started as protecting one girl, quickly grew to having more than twenty girls from her village in her care. After realizing she could not support these girls alone on her nursing salary, Dr. Kulea started Samburu Girls Foundation (SGF) in 2011 to provide a safe space, psychological support, and education for girls across four counties in Kenya. She and her team also work to reconcile with the families of the girls to allow them to return to their communities.
While Dr. Kulea is changing lives, she still faces challenges from people in the community who feel that these practices are important traditions, as well as some politicians who may not speak out for fear of not receiving votes. Kulea believes that it is the job of these leaders to show the community the way, and if they did so, that they could pave the way for progress. Her movement is gaining support, especially from the local youth. Dr. Kulea has received numerous accolades, including the Voice for Girls Award in 2018 and UN Kenya Person of the Year in 2013. She was even recognized by President Barack Obama; he stated her work is the kind of young leadership that the world needs and that “she gives [him] hope.”
Today, Dr. Kulea and her team partner with the police, community chiefs, and the local Children’s Office to rescue girls when they are in trouble. They are raising awareness in public forums in the villages, schools, and local radio. Dr. Kulea and SGF have rescued 1,200 girls and directly support 406 girls receiving education, healthcare, and counseling.
More and more girls keep coming every day.
“It’s been a long walk and yet a longer one to go, but the impact has been felt because there is more awareness now than before about child rights. More girls are going to school than ever before,” states Kulea.
As a leader in her community, we asked Dr. Kulea what advice she would give someone who sees a problem in her community but doesn’t know where to start:
“I would tell them: always stand for what you believe is right and always tell people the truth. When you say and do the right thing, you will be resisted at first, but with time, they will embrace your class of thought and reason with you. Do not let fear hold you back. So, go for it and change your communities – it is possible!”
Somebody’s Mama is currently partnering with Worldreader to sponsor a BLUE Box for Samburu Girls Foundation. Consisting of 50 e-reading devices loaded with 100 e-books each, including training and support, this would provide the Samburu Girls Foundation with their first library - a digital library on the go - including all of their books for school. This will cost $15,000 and we now have just under $4,000 to go.