Doing it for the Girls: Benta Abuya’s Research Touches Her Kenyan Roots
by Joe Savrock (September 2008)
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Growing up in a typical Kenyan household with six siblings and a widowed mother was a humbling reality for Benta Abuya. After Abuya’s father passed away, her family struggled to make ends meet.
But the tough times actually served as a springboard for Abuya.
“I saw the struggles that my mum underwent trying to raise seven of us children, with barely any income,” recalls Abuya. “I realized that as a girl, I had to work hard and excel in school so that in the future I would not have to struggle like my mum did.”
It didn’t take Abuya long to decide what kind of career to pursue. “It is from these beginnings that I draw my passion for my research on girls’ education,” she says. “I wanted to be a teacher and start the crusade of helping girls in school before they become young adults. By offering service to the girls I wanted to return what my teachers had done for me while I was high school.”
Abuya went on to earn an M.A. from the University of Nairobi. She then became head of Department-Humanities of Our Lady Of Fatima School in Nairobi. “Our Lady Of Fatima is a mixed day school, just like most typical American schools,” she states. “This school is situated in a poor neighborhood and caters to poor for children. The Catholic Church has been very instrumental in the survival of the school.”
Abuya enjoyed her leadership roles at Our Lady of Fatima; still, she was looking to expand her scope. “I want to help and advocate for girls,” continues Abuya. “I came to realize that girls and women need champions—persons to be their voices—in our societies where culture and patriarchy tend to favor the man folk.”
To help underprivileged Kenyan girls forge ahead with their educational dreams, Abuya started the Robeli Educational Centre. Situated in one of the poorer neighborhoods in Nairobi, the center serves girls who cannot afford to enter public schools.
“The center will be offering different vocational trades to the girls, and later to boys, who want to learn a trade or skill and become employable,” says Abuya. “I wanted to give back to the community what it had given to me.”
Abuya’s passion for the educational issues of girls and women is so strong that she was willing to leave her home country and study at Penn State—half way around the globe—in the University’s Educational Theory and Policy program. She’s pursuing a Ph.D. in comparative and international education, with a doctoral minor in demography. This program, she felt, offers the best opportunities for her interests in population studies and girls’ education.
“I saw Penn State as a school that could allow me to cut across disciplines and link my population skills to my experience in education,” she says.
Abuya says she is grateful to the Ford Foundation, through the International Fellowships Programme, for funding her post-baccalaureate study. “I am one of 14 fellows from Kenya who were privileged to land the prestigious fellowship in 2005 to study in any part of the world,” she says. “My scholarship was tenable in any part of the world, so I wanted to get the best out of my doctoral degree.”
Abuya is quite active at Penn State. She has served as a representative to the Graduate Council and is a member in the Committee on Graduate Student and Faculty Issues.
She also has received a coveted Policy Communication Fellowship with the Population Reference Bureau, sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development. The fellowship began in May 2008 and runs through next June. As part of the fellowship, Abuya is conducting a yearlong research project. She will present her findings at a workshop next April, prior to the Population Association of America Annual Meeting.
Abuya admits that it’s not easy being away from Nairobi and her family. “It is part of the sacrifices that we have to make,” she says.
Abuya expects to complete her doctoral degree in 2010, “if not slightly earlier with a little more work,” she says. “Beyond my degree, I have an open mind—from being an assistant professor at Penn State to working at the United Nations. I believe at any level that I work I will still have the valuable contribution to the education of girls—whether it's through research, teaching, or development work.”