They say what gets counted, gets done.

But in this modern time, child marriage is a cancer that has obstinately refused to go away.  According to data by UNICEF, 1 out of every 3 girls in emerging countries are married off before the age of 18.  At a global level, countries where access to girls’ education is limited contribute to a figure of approximately 1 out of 9 girls being married off before even reaching the age of 15 – despite that fact that in many countries around the world, the legal age of consent for marriage is 18 years.  As is evident from these statistics, our work is cut out for us.

 

Communities in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia have held strong to this practice that denies adolescent girls their rights as they age.  These child brides miss out on education and are more likely to experience poor health, violence, and languish in extreme poverty.  Why is this happening in a planet where global leaders have set a clear road map and sustainable goals to achieve by 2030?

If this current trend continues, 150 million girls will be married off either prematurely or against their will in the next decade.  We are talking of 15 million girls each year, close to 1.2 million girls every month, and sadly over 40,000 girls every day.  Hypothetically, if numbers are what makes sense, then almost 1,700 girls risk being married off every 60 minutes.  This should spur each and every one of us to action.  We must end child marriage!

To get a real picture of this situation we need to embark on a virtual trip to Kajiado county, one of Kenya’s largest regions amongst the 47 devolved units of government.  Bordering Tanzania to the south of Kenya, Kajiado is home to some of Africa’s most culturally rich and preserved heritage: the Maa community, more popularly referred to as the ‘Maasai’.  The Maasai people are pastoralists; they value cattle and place great significant upon their ancient traditions.  These traditions are unwritten, passed verbally from one generation to the next, and observed as law.

I began my 5-day tour of the region to undertake a survey that would provide insight into rates of child marriage and school drop-outs in some parts of Kajiado.  It is important to note that since 2003, teenage pregnancy in Kenya has been on the rise, with Kajiado county recording one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the country.  Here, 1 out of 5 girls has begun child-bearing by age 15, but an influencing factor into how this data is read must be acknowledged: the Kenya Demographic Health Survey only focuses with data on girls of reproductive age, meaning there still exists a wide gap in data for teen pregnancy cases amongst girls below the age of 15.

Lasoi* is one of these girls.  Lasoi is now 12 years old and pregnant to a man for which she is but one of six wives.  She did not know about her pregnancy until one of her fellow wives explained to her that she would have a baby soon.  And worse still? Lasoi didn’t even know that she was to be married until it was too late.

“One afternoon as I came back from school for lunch,” she explained, “I found about six men seated with my father under a tree.  I could also see a large herd of cattle - 20 maybe.  My father called me over and told me to greet the visitors in English.  He was always proud that I could speak English.”

What Lasoi didn’t know is that the cattle were being paid to her father as part of her ‘bride price’.  Maybe her ability to speak English raised her market value; could this be the reason her father wanted her to demonstrate it before her future husband?

Lasoi was soon married.  The marriage sealed under the only tree in her home and then she was taken to her new home.  Given her age, she was still permitted to play with the other children in the new homestead.  Unlike the other children though, Lasoi would sleep inside her own ‘manyatta’- a traditional Maasai homestead.  Occasionally, the man who called himself her husband would visit, claiming that he intended only to check on her.  It was not long before the man forced his way onto her one night, causing her great pain and making it difficult to walk for several days after.

From that moment, Lasoi was no longer permitted to play freely with the other children; she was now a wife.  She started to cook and perform other chores, with littler consideration given to how difficult they might be for such a small girl.  Having never attended any ante-natal classes, her biggest task awaited her in 6 months’ time, when she would be expected to deliver her baby.  She was just one of many other girls in this community with such a story.

I was horrified by the story Lasoi had told me, and as my Land Cruiser drove along the dusty road, it was hard to shake from my mind.  Inside the car were my colleagues from the different organizations undertaking the joint survey and of course our luggage covered with a thick layer of dust. We maneuvered around shrubs and big rocks, crossing the seasonal rivers that had dried up.  Ahead, I could see many girls herding cattle.  Something about the image was wrong.  Are these girls at the right place? I wondered. 

“Should these girls be in school?” I asked, breaking the silence.  I received no answer; it seemed my question had been a foolish one for the context.  But what context?

With a stronger voice, I asked again - this time, tapping the driver on his shoulder.  He laughed.

“These are women,” he said, “They are taking care of their wealth.  These cattle belong to them by extension of the person who married them.  There is no school for them.

Silence reclaimed inside the car for the remaining part of the journey.  All this time in my mind, I was thinking. Deep thoughts.

Soon, we made a stop at a school.  We were greeted by a teacher, an old man, very jovial to see us but I could tell he had been worn out by the scorching heat of the sun. It was very hot. The manmade some remarks on the education system in general and the state of living in the region.  Here, I felt, was the perfect forum to raise my questions.

So I did.

“What is the value of all this wealth without an education?”

“Why are the people in this community poor yet they own so much wealth in terms of cattle?”

“Would the situation be different if many of these child brides could have stayed in school?”

No answers became immediately apparent.  Perhaps I was too optimistic that they would be.

In a school with a population of 26 children, only 2 were girls - and they were both in the lowest class, which did not bode well for the school’s ability to retain female students as they aged.  The teacher filled in the survey form we had devised, identifying numerous challenges that girls seeking education would face.

“Soon after the ‘cutting’ season, no girl reports back to school,” the teacher said, referring to the prevalent traditional practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in the region.

“What do you do about it?” I asked the teacher. I was eager to know what he did to protect girls in his school or the community from undergoing forced FGM.  At least I had known of many anti-FGM champions who were teachers from different parts of Kenya.

He explained that some of the girls are sent away to be married across the border, in Tanzania.  There is a thin line between child marriage and FGM. Both of these harmful practices in most instances go hand in hand. It is hard to separate the two, but one underlying denominator is that they affect girls’ progress.

It was clear that there were administrative gaps within the Kenyan government structure.  On paper, the system is robustly populated with Chiefs and Village Elders enforcing the law at the lowest levels in the community.  However, the law includes protection for girls against Female Genital Mutilation, yet it still happens.  The law criminalizes marrying children, yet it continues to take place – now in a trans-border context. 

Kenya has the most progressive constitution in Africa.  This constitution has enshrined the right to education for every child. The government has even allowed for Free Primary Education program, though implementation has not yet yielded the projected progress as this system appears to be selective towards the boy child.  It is not right.  It is not fair.  Are girls not children?

Ending poverty begins with equipping young people today with quality education.  With education they develop the requisite skills to elevate themselves, and ultimately propel their country to greater economic heights.  We in Kenya who dream of a double-digit economy should therefore start by protecting girls from child marriage and sensitizing communities to the realities of female exploitation and abuse.  Child marriage and Female Genital Mutilation are our biggest setbacks to greater economic gains, and to the happiness and prosperity of every life at every age: from Nairobi to Kajaido.

 

* Name has been changed for confidentiality

 

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