First generation graduate Mary Otieno: From rural Kenya to a PhD in education

This story is part of a campaign run by the GEM Report, #Iamthe1stgirl, to accompany the launch of the 2020 GEM Gender Report. The campaign tells the stories of many girls who were the first in their family to graduate, demonstrating progress in gender equality in education that the Report shows has taken place since the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action 25 years ago.  The campaign aims to amplify the message that an equal generation is an educated one.

My name is Mary Otieno. I was born in Kisumu County in Kenya. As a child, I lived with my parents and siblings in a small village in Kisumu County. I now work and live in Nairobi. I am the first in my family and the first girl in my village (of a population of 1, 200 households) to graduate with a university degree (Bachelor of education).  I used my education to start the Siprosa School in Nairobi, which provides high quality education to children regardless of their background. I am educating young girls, and also young boys, so that they may become the men that will not be intimidated to work with, marry, and live with these empowered and strong women!

This is my story:

I was the first born of a family of 6. My mum was a housewife and my Dad was a tailor and the sole breadwinner. I went to a primary school in rural Kenya. It wasn’t easy.  At the age of eight, I walked four kilometres daily to and from school. I struggled during my primary education because I had to juggle my schoolwork with the household chores. Sometimes I had to miss school because we couldn’t afford the school fees. 

It was during this time that my late grandmother, Siprosa Anyango, became my mentor. She guided me through my studies, supported me financially and advised me on sensitive issues like hygiene.  She mentored me on how to value and care for myself, and how to become an educated and empowered woman. I successfully finished my primary school, but the challenges remained throughout my secondary education. Very often I would stay home because my dad could not afford the school fees. Luckily, my aunts and uncles helped us financially. At that time, most of my peers that were girls never completed high school – they often got pregnant and married or dropped out of school. It is because of my grandmother’s support and mentorship that I not only finished high school, I also completed my graduate studies and eventually earned a PhD in educational planning and economics of education. I am also an alumni of Echidna global scholars program at the Brookings Institution.

Success in education has changed my life and that of my siblings, children and community. My siblings are also well educated because I set the pace.  My children appreciate women because I have supported them throughout their education and development. One of my cousins, who married early, re-enrolled in grade eight and graduated with a degree in veterinary science.  Another cousin had dropped out due to early pregnancy – but she re-enrolled and graduated with a bachelor of education. I broke the vicious cycle! 

My children are so proud of me. They support girls’ education due to the incredible benefits it can bring. I can support my family financially. I get respect from my community for my PhD.  I help empower adolescent girls. My youngest son Andrew always says, Oh! Mum you are a positive challenge to the family!

As an educated woman, I am giving back to society. I am an empowered woman who has persevered through difficult circumstances with hard work and determination! I am providing young minds the opportunity to explore their talents, interests and full potential in a quality preschool so that they may have a strong foundation for their future schooling. I am enabling poor families to break the vicious cycle of poverty!



  1. You are inspiring! People find thousands of excuses for why they do not get an education. And you have done it with many obstacles. Not making excuses.
    Your intentions are right. Education is important, especially for women.

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