Aged 13 and betrothed to an older man, Teriano Lesancha couldn’t have known she’d go on to change her village forever.
Child marriage was a tradition in the Maasai tribe in Kenya. One by one, her school friends had been pulled out of school to get married to men who weren’t their choice – and who were at times much older. Each year, fewer and fewer girls were attending school. Eventually, there would be none left.
Teriano knew she would be pulled out of school to marry, just like all the other girls in her class. Marriage meant she’d be forced to stay home, take care of the household and bear children. Before she was conceived, Teriano had been “booked” to marry an older man as soon as she came of age.
Her dreams of university would be shattered. She was only 13 years old.
Child marriage is not confined to Kenya. Across the developing world, it’s rife.
For struggling families, their best chance of survival could be marrying their daughters off, because they can’t afford to keep them. The sad reality is that thousands of teenage girls are forced to marry every day.
For Teriano, like so many girls, the day came far too soon.
“Just before sitting for my grade eight examinations, the family of the old woman who had booked me to be married by her son became very serious and made a demand to my father ...
They brought sugar to our homestead signifying that I was now seriously engaged to their son and in a few days’ time, the traditional wedding would take place,” Teriano says. Her dowry would be five cows.
But Teriano refused to go without a fight. As a World Vision sponsored child, she knew her school fees were paid in full, and therefore she wouldn’t be a financial burden on her family. She protested to her father.
In a life-changing moment, her mother pointed out, “If you go to college, you may help us more than if you get married.”
Eventually, Teriano’s father relented. That was more than 20 years ago.
Today, Teriano is the first person in her village to have obtained a postgraduate degree. She took a job working for World Vision Kenya, helping other people get access to quality education programs.
More recently, she’s travelled the world as a speaker who’s inspired hundreds of girls, women and Maasai people on her quest for women’s empowerment. She has also dedicated her time and energy to becoming an activist and starting her own work to support the rights of women.
Her passion for helping change perceptions of women is infectious. She is a figure who’s inspired thousands, and she recalls how she’s been asked, “If my daughter stays in school, can she be like you?”
One phrase she circles back to in our conversation is “the power of one”. “My sponsors were kind enough to sponsor me, but they didn’t know how many lives would be changed after that. I’ve been able to travel, share my own story and help other girls myself.
“It all started with one family choosing to sponsor one child. Helping that one girl, you don’t know how many other lives you can touch,” she says.
Back in her village in Kenya, Teriano notes that there are signs of change. But she is still challenged by parents who say that “education isn’t free” – and many are still pressured by poverty to sell their daughters into marriage.
Without sponsorship through World Vision, Teriano knows she couldn't have achieved what she had - and she's grateful.
“Many people in my village can’t afford to send their daughters to school. My family couldn’t have. And given the choice between sons or daughters to send to school, people will choose sons.”
If it's one thing she's convinced of, it's the power of others to change your destiny. Help in the form of child sponsorship was key to Teriano's story, and she continues to advocate for women's rights and child sponsorship to this day.
“I will do all that I can to help other girls who might be going through a difficult time as I was in. Having compassion in your heart isn’t enough – it’s important to act. The difference can be much bigger than you think.”
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