The reality for girls as Kenya launches AU Campaign to end child marriage

Kenya is finally ready to launch the Africa Union campaign on ending child marriage!  This aggressive campaign is meant to eliminate child marriages in Africa and has already been launched in 18 countries, and it's to be noted that the launch of the campaign in these countries was spearheaded in many cases by heads of states and first ladies. It is now Kenya’s turn.

I am advantaged to be among the civil society team that collectively worked on the draft document, the National Action Plan on ending child marriages in Kenya. The final draft approved by the State Department, Ministry of Public Service, Youth and Gender Affairs, will be unveiled by His Excellency The President of Kenya, Uhuru Kenyatta, on 8th March. The document is meant to act as a roadmap to the relevant stakeholder charged with ensuring that child/forced marriages are put to an end.

In Kenya, despite the strong legal framework which puts the minimum age of marriage at 18 for both boys and girls, the practice of early marriage persists. Girls are disproportionately affected and the prevalence is highest in the most deprived parts of the country. The Kenya Demographic Health Survey 2014-15 shows that prevalence is highest in Northern Kenya (56%), followed by coast (41%), Nyanza (32%), Rift Valley (30%), Western (27%), Eastern (18%) Central (17%) and Nairobi (7%)

The likelihood of being married as children stems largely from lack of education, poverty and persistent practice of harmful cultural practices such as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). The majority of these marriages are spearheaded by elders and formalized usually through customary procedures such as the payment of a bride price to the girls’ family. 

This worsens in times of emergencies when girls are seen as an easy means of restocking family livestock that perished during drought through marrying girls off irrespective of their age. Girls are either seen as an economic burden or valued as capital for their exchange value in terms of goods, money and livestock.

The reality of Child/Forced Marriage

This news came in the wake of my recent visit to Magadi. I got the chance to interact and mentor about three hundred girls who were undergoing an alternative rites of passage program (ARP) delivered by AMREF Health Africa. My visit to Musenke brought me nigh to the reality of child/forced marriage.

Amina*, 14 years old narrowly escaped forced marriage to a 45 year old man. Amina was only 12 years old. Her close friend, Naserian*, 15 years old escaped jaws of Female Genital Cutting and a subsequent marriage at the age of 9.

Lorna speaks to Amina about her experiences [Credit: Lorna Andisi}

Lorna speaks to Amina about her experiences [Credit: Lorna Andisi}

Amina’s charming smile caught my attention. I instantly fell in love with her confidence coupled with her intelligence. On interacting with her, her smile proved to conceal distress that she underwent two years ago. With consent from AMREF Health Africa and Amina’s main guardian, I got a chance to interview her.

In 2013, Amina sat for her primary school final exams and emerged the best girl from her class and district as well. She desired to join a secondary school to pursue her dream of becoming a Television Anchor. Her dreams were almost shattered when her impoverished father secretly arranged her marriage to a man four times her age. 

She got wind of the planned marriage through her brother who eavesdropped to a conversation between his father and a neighbor. Amina was to be traded in the following day for a few cows that were to be sold to raise money for his elder brother’s school fee. Amina’s mother has passed on three years previously.

That night, Amina was unable to sleep. It was about midnight, she had few hours remaining before become a child bride, a wife with new responsibilities that she could not imagine herself performing! She instantaneously planned her escape.

She tiptoed across the room, careful not to wake up any soul. Cautiously, she opened the door, closed it silently and took off at a ‘leopard’s speed’.  She waved through thorny bushes oblivious of the danger she was putting herself through (here, wild animals are known to hunt goats at this hour), the orchestra of the twittering insects giving her rhythm to sprint even faster. The breezy full moon night supplying her with just enough light to easily locate her elder half-sister’ house, which was about 5 Km away. 

In roughly 20 minutes she arrived, flinging her door wide open. She landed on the floor with a huge thud panting, sweating and slightly bleeding from parts that had been pricked by thorns. Her sister woke up with a loud piercing scream. Amina quickly identified herself.  Through gasps, she narrated her tribulation.

Her loving sister was very concerned. She happened to be an elementary school teacher at the same school that Amina went to. The following morning, she reported the matter to the schools’ management and what followed was a series of demonstrations and marches by her schoolmates and teachers. They marched to various offices including the Area Chief, Police Station, District Education Office, and Provincial Administration demanding for immediate action to be taken to spare Amina from the imminent arranged marriage.

Children take part in group discussion on the effects of early marriage at event in Kilifi [CREDIT: Plan International]

Children take part in group discussion on the effects of early marriage at event in Kilifi [CREDIT: Plan International]

Community members meet to discuss early marriage [Credit: Plan International}

Community members meet to discuss early marriage [Credit: Plan International}

Amina’s father was quite belligerent citing that his decision was final. He located her, went for her, dragged her and locked her in the house. He threatened that he would harm her and curse her if she attempted to escape again. 

Activities in her village came to a stand-still for three consecutive days. During the day, women could be seen gathering in small groups and talking in low tones. Men left the village in pretense of search for pasture for their livestock. School children tirelessly sang and chanted ‘No Marriage for Amina! No marriage for Amina!’ At this time, Amina was drafting her suicide note.

Just before Amina could take away her life, the police stormed her house and rescued her. His unmoved father was arrested and remanded for a few days. Amina was now running late to join secondary school. Luckily she was awarded a full bursary though a community development fund program, and was enrolled to High School. She is currently in form two pursuing her dream.

Amina has never stepped back home except when the Nation Television crew and I were conducting the interview. When schools close, she stays at her sisters’ place. She graduated from the ARP program, a training program that helped her transition to adulthood without undergoing FGM. Amina is so far safe from FGM and Child Marriage. Her friend Naserian ran away from home and sought refuge at a rescue centre in Narok, a few miles away. Her parents are yet to find her.

Amina and Naserian represent a fraction of thousands of girls in Kenya who are at high risk of undergoing FGM and early/forced marriage; cultural practices that are robbing them off their dreams.

Abandonment of child marriages and FGM is crucial to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals. Goals on education, health, ending poverty and hunger as well as achieving gender equality and empowering women and girls.

As we celebrate International Women’s Day on 8th March, let’s remember that girls like Amina and Naserian are counting on us to protect them.  Let us join hands in protecting our girls, Just like Aminas case where the community and relevant sectors joined hands to safeguard her future.Let us all #BeBoldForChange

*Names have been changes for privacy purposes.