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KENYA: Knife and illiteracy threaten daughters of tobacco country

Story by ELISHA OTIENO
Publication Date: 9/27/2007

Schools reopened for the third term four weeks ago but learners in Kuria District are still struggling to break away from cultural stereotypes.

Girls celebrate after going through the alternative rite of passage in Western Kenya.Photos/FILE
Pupils, especially girls, have to contend with many bottlenecks as they strive to break away from illiteracy.

They are yet to fully benefit from the free primary education programme introduced by the Government in 2003.

Maureen and Jane are aged between 14 and 17, but they are already housewives of elderly tobacco farmers at Kehancha Division.

Others work on farms alongside their parents although they are supposed to be in school.

In nearby Mabera Division, a provincial administrator dissolves a marriage between a 15-year-old girl and a 40-year-old widower. The man is thrown into the cells for marrying a minor.

Some girls have dropped out of primary and secondary schools and are now employed as barmaids and househelps in Isebania, Migori and Kisii towns.

Broken marriages 

Most of them, we find out, are victims of broken marriages into which they had been pushed by dowry-hungry parents.

Education of girls has been under threat from outdated cultural stereotypes. As such, there is a high rate of illiteracy among girls in Kuria District.

For girls, education is secondary to marriage and circumcision. This has put parents and government officials on a collision course.

The introduction of the free primary education has not benefited girls as classrooms are filled by boys.

A few girls enrolled but were married off immediately after circumcision.

Education authorities say female circumcision gives girls a false feeling of womanhood and opens doors to marriage.

About 62 per cent of girls who enrol in primary schools do not make it to secondary schools.

Source of wealth

“Since Kuria is among the poorest districts in the country, parents opt to educate their sons and not daughters. They believe they are just a source of wealth in form of dowry,” says Mr Lucas Chacha, coordinator of Action Aid in the region.

There are 145 primary and 17 secondary schools in the one-constituency district and most of them are ill-equipped, leading to poor performance in national examinations. The level of illiteracy among parents is also high. 

“We also lack women role models in this district who our girls can envy to study harder. That is why several organisations have come together to build a western Kenya anti-circumcision network to enable us build on initiatives elsewhere,” says Mr Chacha. Although area MP and Health assistant minister Wilfred Machage has been urging the community to take girls to school, his advice has been largely ignored.

During the December holidays, parents circumcise hundreds of girls in thickets and immediately married them off, often to old but influential farmers and traders.

Dr Machage has been pleading with them to let the girls decide on own whether they want to be circumcised.

“Eighteen is an ideal age because most of them shall be through with their secondary education and will be in a position to make informed decisions. They must learn that they will only get out of abject poverty when they educate both boys and girls,” says the medical doctor.

A few girls have been lucky to escape the circumcisers’ knives to pursue education.

Right of passage

Non-governmental organisations have been organising camps that serve as alternative rites of passage.

More than 200 girls go through the alternative process every year even though some are later forcefully circumcised when they return home.

Mr Chacha wants the Government to take stern action against parents and guardians who circumcise their daughters.

“The State must get tough on child rights violators. There aren’t enough children officers in Kuria District with the mandate and skills to handle matter pertaining to children.”

Some parents take their daughters to relatives in neighbouring Tarime District of Tanzania for fear of arrest. 

They believe an uncircumcised girl is an outcast whose future is doomed.

Elders from the community in Kenya and Tanzania often meet with a view to stop the retrogressive practice. Their endeavours haven’t been successful.

A rights activist, Ms Beatrice Robi, has rescued some girls from forced marriages and linked them to donors who supported their education after being chased away by parents. She has been at loggerheads with chiefs who are said to support female circumcision.

Speaking at forum organised by Action Aid in Kisumu recently, the girls said their future remained bleak if they continue being denied access to education.

“We urge the Government to provide equal opportunities for both boys and girls as the nation cannot develop if there is gender disparity in education enrolment,’ they said.

DATE: 9/27/2007

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(c): Nationmedia.com

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