The Worth of Five Cows

It’s Blog Action Day 2011 and we’re all here for the main course, that is, the discourse on food. It may come as no surprise that nutrition, poverty, and international development are all intricately linked, and many poignant words will be written on this very topic today. You’ll probably read about gender and food distribution: when sustenance is scarce, girls are the last to receive their share. What may shock you is that beyond the unfair rations women are alotted in countries like Nepal and Malawi, the life of a girl is a measured commodity. In fact, her very existence is equated to food.

In the Maasai tribe of Kenya, girls are married off at pre-adolescent ages, some as young as twelve. The suitors are often twice as old – thus more likely to have HIV – and active polygamists. Fathers and husbands-to-be settle on the value, or dowry, for which the girl will be exchanged. She is never consulted or granted a voice in the matter. Now, can you guess how much this girl is worth in the eyes of her community?

Five cows.

Cows are lucrative animals in the Maasailands. They supply families with milk to sell and they produce calves to continue this cycle. The cow business isn’t all gain, however. This arid region barely contains the water needed for human beings to survive, let alone their livestock. If drought does not kill the cattle, natural causes will. The average lifespan of a cow is 22 years. So, while five cows may concievably give the Maasai family a source of food and income, the payoff is limited and meager in comparison to what is lost: the girl child. With the mounting threats a Maasai girl must face as she grows up, including domestic abuse, rape, and FGM, we can add to this list a very real chance of being sold. That is, until her value is deemed higher than five cows.

There’s a simple truth at play here: food scarcity is all tied up with economics. The Maasai are among the poorest of tribes in Kenya and selling daughters to the highest bidder is an attempt at escaping poverty. What is forgotten, or never even learned, is that an educated girl reinvests 90-percent of her salary into family. In one year alone, her contribution exceeds the monetary worth of five cows. She inspires other girls and their families to follow her example, enabling girls’ education to flourish and communities to thrive. Suddenly the girl child, once a bargaining chip, is a source of income. Some call it “the girl effect,” these benefits set in motion by a single person.

Whatever the name, it’s undeniable that girls deserve more than the portion they’re divvied. While pondering the many faces of food today, it is essential to remember how we are not just giving women less to eat or telling women that their bodies should be starved in order to reach a desirable image. In some parts of the world, we’re literally purchasing women for food-producing animals. The practice is sickening and degrading, but it is also, with your help, coming to an end.

Join Maasai Girls Education Fund (MGEF), where we enable girls to attend school, learn important life skills, and ultimately free themselves from outdated rites of passage, like child marriage. We’re empowering a new generation of Maasai women who are strong, independent and educated. And we invite you to clear your plate for just a moment to see how you can help. After all, isn’t a girl worth more than five cows?