Once you know……

Unit 4 – Women’s Rights in Maasai Culture

By Valerie Kae Ken

 The Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania are traditional cattle-herding pastoralists and are semi-nomadic.  As of 2009, there were an estimated 840,000 Maasai in total, spread over an area of land South of Nairobi, and into Northern Tanzania towards Ngorogoro.  Maasai live in bomas, which are settlements of family groups with its cattle, goats, sheep and donkeys.  Massai culture appears exotic. Tourists traveling to Kenya and Tanzania never tire of taking photographs of the tall warriors, the moran, who proudly stand, swathed in red kikoy, holding a spear and a club. Colourful robes and beaded neck-work adorn bodies of beautiful women with glistening mocha skin. But underneath all this vibrant richness is a tradition that robs Maasai women of ownership – even ownership of their very bodies.

Life for a Maasai woman is one of hardship and repression.  It is tradition in Massai culture that marriages are arranged for a girl, even as young as 12 years, by her father.  Her mother has no say and cannot object.  And although the government has decreed female circumcision/female genital mutilation to be illegal, in many communities it is still secretly practiced before the wedding ceremony can take place.  It is important to note that young girls are rejected for marriage if they are not circumcised.  Bride price also exists, and is paid in cows, sometimes as many as ten, which are given to the bride-to-be……….but she cannot own them.  She can make money and feed her family from the milk, but she cannot sell them.  They are held “in trust” for any sons she might have.  And after marriage, she must work very hard – she is required to do any repairs on the family home to maintain it, to fetch water and firewood, to cook and look after the children and to feed and tend the animals.  She owns nothing.  She can inherit nothing.  She can be beaten.  She can never re-marry.  Polygamy is a part of Maasai tradition and women are forced to accept it (Mihlar, 2012).  “Maasai women are not allowed to speak in public/community meetings or participate in decisions” (PWC, 2012).  As a result of poor health and hard work, “a Maasai woman’s life expectancy is 45 years” (Kilimanjaro Sunrise Tours, 2011).

Gender discrimination and early marriage makes it difficult for Maasai women to be educated despite the fact that in 2003, incoming President Mwai Kibaki made primary education in Kenya compulsory and free. Just 48% of Maasai girls enroll in school and only 5% will make it to secondary school (Shaw, 2011).  “For many parents, sending a daughter to secondary school is considered a poor investment, given that she will live with her husband’s kin once she is married”  (Miller, 2012).

Not only have Maasai women been marginalized within their culture, they also face often blatant discrimination by people from urban communities, who look at them as “backward, ignorant and dirty” (Mihlar, 2011).

But Maasai women are fighting back.  In Kenya, an organization known as ‘The Massai Women for Education and Economic Development’ (MAWEED) is fighting for the rights of Maasai women and the educational rights of Maasai youth (UNPO, 2008).  And in Tanzania, a grassroots organization, ‘Pastoral Women’s Council’ (PWC), founded in 1997 by a remarkable Maasai woman, Maanda Ngotiko, fights to combat many of the rights issues facing the women.  Today, this community based organization is made up of 3,700 members, funded by local, national and international sources, including Oxfam Canada.  The work of this group has resulted in a number of advances for Maasai women and their daughters.  Over 400 students have been given assistance to attend secondary schools, 14 have gone on to university, and 25 have graduated as teachers.  Young girls have been spared being forced into early marriages.  A micro-credit scheme has given financial support to 875 women.  Communities totaling 4,600 adults and 13, 800 children now have access to safe water.  Information regarding land rights has been made available to 7.000 adults (PWC, 2012).

Slowly, the life of the Maasai woman is being improved.  The significance of organizations growing from within a community cannot be overstated.  If changes are to happen – huge changes that involve addressing generations of tradition – it must come from the bottom up, not the top down.  The changes need to be embraced by the very communities in which they live.  It is the women in these communities, assisted by aid groups and individual donors, who are making these changes happen.


Question:  Maasai women and girls risk being ostracized by the entire community in which they live and even by their own families if they reject the traditions of their culture.  As a result, many continue to allow practices and even support the traditions which violate their rights as human beings.  How can this issue be handled by community development workers when attempting to address women’s rights in Maasai culture?   For a good article on this issue, see:



Kilimanjaro Sunrise Tours (2011). Maasai Woman. Kilimanjaro sunrise tours. Retrieved February 28, 2012 from http://kilimanjarosunrise.com/info/maasai-woman

Mihlar F. (2011). Part 2-Maasai women speak of abuse and violence. Minorities in focus.  Retrieved February 28, 2012 from http://minorityrights.wordpress.com/2011/01/28/part-2-–-maasai-women-speak-up-of-abuse-and-violence

Mihlar, F. (2012).  Africa views-Kenya: Massai women say they’ll combat discrimination, but it will take time.  AlertNet. Retrieved February 27, 2012 from http://www.trust.org/alertnet/blogs/africa-views/kenya-maasai-women-say-theyll-combat-discrimination-but-it-will-take-time

Miller, J. (2012). Maasai Schools.  Worlds of difference.  Retrieved February 27, 2012 from http://homelands.org/worlds/maasai.html

PWC. (2012). Empowerment for Tanzania’s Maasai. Pastoral women’s council. Retrieved February 27, 2012 from http://www.pastoralwomenscouncil.org/index.html

Shaw, B. (2011). Value of educating Maasai women. Maasai girls education fund. Retrieved February 28, 2012 from http://www.maasaigirlseducation.org/the-need/value-of-educating-maasai-women

UNPO. (2008). Maasai.  Unrepresented nations and peoples organization.  Retrieved February 27, 2012 from http://www.unpo.org/members/7920





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