When I was just 5 years old, my parents announced my engagement to my 6-year-old neighbor.
“Look, there goes your husband,” they would say to me whenever he passed by.
I knew that this was the way things were done in my community, and I knew that girls were valued by how many cows their family would receive as a dowry.
But as I got older, I also knew that it was not the future I wanted for myself. I looked at this boy, whose family was even poorer than my own. I looked at the hardships women endured.
I looked at this hopeless future in front of me and I said, No way.
When I reached age 12, the age at which girls undergo female genital mutilation and get married, it was time for me to take a risk.
I loved school and did not want to become a wife and mother at such a young age. If I followed the expected path, my dreams for a different future would end with my circumcision and marriage.
I did something no girl in my village had ever done: I negotiated with my father that I would only be circumcised if I was allowed to complete high school.
He agreed and, after graduation, I was accepted at a university in the United States.
But by then my father was in the hospital, paralyzed.
We had sold almost everything to pay for his care, so there was no money for college, especially in the U.S.
It took a long time, but I eventually gained the support of my village elders, who helped me raise the money I needed to continue my education.
They made me promise to use this education to benefit the community.
I went to college in the U.S. and then continued on to complete a Ph.D. in Education.
Meanwhile, I founded Kakenya Center for Excellence, a primary boarding school for girls in my village.
This was the fulfillment of my promise to the elders. I could think of no better way to benefit my community than by providing a safe, nurturing environment to educate its daughters.
Though not everyone thought this was a great idea in the beginning, the school now has 183 thriving students in grades 4-8.
They are learning to say no to harmful cultural practices such as FGM and early marriage and to believe in their own dreams for the future: to become doctors, lawyers, pilots, and politicians.
This, in turn, is making a difference in the greater community.
Parents are seeing that their daughters are smart and capable of becoming leaders.
People are beginning to believe that girls are worth more than a dowry of cows.
And the girls themselves understand their worth, their rights, and their potential.
All they needed was a chance to find their voices and an opportunity to speak up.