Josephine Kulea’s journey started just after completing her high school education in Kenya. There were plans in place to marry her off to someone she had never met. This was nothing out of the norm to the highly conservative Samburu community, where girls are usually married off at a young age.
Josephine ran away and married another man at 17 years. She gave birth to her first child at 18. She was able to go back to school and undertake a nursing course. Upon completion, she went back to her village of Oldonyiro. Education opened her eyes to the discrimination the women in her community were facing.
One of these is the beading practice, where a man (who has to be a relative) gives a girl beads to indicate that she is someone’s girlfriend. Since the man is a relative, culture does not allow the girl to marry him but allows her to sleep with him. If the girl becomes pregnant, either she procures an abortion or the baby is killed at birth.
Josephine, through her foundation, addresses the issue of female genital mutilation (FGM), a practice that is still rampant in Samburu and surrounding communities even though Kenya outlawed it 2001. For most of these communities, FGM is a transition from being a girl to a woman. However, the medical and psychological problems it causes has had far worse consequence on the girl, including risk to reproductive problems, diseases and even death.
Samburu Girls Foundation, started in 2012, has rescued more than 1000 girls and sponsors 315 girls’ education. It works in Kenya’s four counties: Samburu, Marsabit, Isiolo and Laikipia, where most nomadic pastoralist communities reside.
Some of the girls Josephine rescued include her 10-year old and seven year old cousins, who were to be married off by their uncle. The activist was able to report the matter to the police, who arrested her uncle. She was ostracised by the community, and elders even planned a curse ceremony in 2008 to wish her death for going against culture.
Josephine has had to deal with bitter families, rogue police, opposing politicians, and low support from the community to see her dream through. The marginalisation of some of these communities has led to high illiteracy levels, lack of or inadequate access to opportunities and information. Politicians would rather give her a wide berth, as her fight against these harmful practices would interfere with their political ambitions in the area. She also faced financial problems, resorting to her nurse salary to support some of her rescue efforts.
Fortunately, her contribution to the community and her continued fight against harmful practices against women and children did not go unnoticed. She received the Head of State Commendation in 2012 by former President Mwai Kibaki. In 2013, she was named the United Nations person of the Year and in 2014, she received the Inspirational Woman of the Year award by the National Gender and Equality Commission.
Former US President Barack Obama acknowledged Josephine’s work and effort in his speech at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit when he was in Nairobi in 2015.