KENYA: Where Child Marriages Thrive Unabated

When Josephine Kulea mobilised police and rescued a 10-year-old girl on the eve of her marriage, she had a reason to sit back and celebrate the timely intervention.

The nurse at Kipsing dispensary in Isiolo District, and security officers had snatched away the minor a few hours before a 55-year-old man could take her away as a fourth wife.

She had travelled with the girl to Nanyuki Town, more than 200km away from Kipsing, and was in the process of seeking an alternative home for the Standard One dropout when she received news that left her dumbfounded.

The polygamist

In a bizarre turn of events, the father of the rescued girl had decided to give out his other daughter, aged only six years, to the same suitor in an effort to ensure that the planned marriage went on.

As per cultural practices of the Samburu community, a girl must be circumcised before she can be presented as a bride, and it was no exception for the six-year-old girl.

The day-long marriage ceremony proceeded as planned on May 17 and the polygamist went home with his new bride, after giving out eight cows as dowry.

But this incident raised eyebrows, even to conservative Samburus, owing to the age of the girl.

“This particular case defied all traditional logic in the community and I view it as a direct affront to traditions,” said Mr Peter Leamusi from Kipsing.

The elderly man

By the time Ms Kulea, 24, organised a second rescue mission, this time involving the Isiolo Children’s office, the elderly man and her new bride could not be traced immediately, having migrated further into the interior.

And as efforts were being made in Isiolo for another rescue mission, a similar thing was happening in Mukogodo Division of Laikipia North District where two girls were removed from Ol Kinyei primary school by their parents to get married.

The second rescue mission in Isiolo took five days and the girl was found in the remote Puri Hills area, on the boundary of Samburu District, where she had been hidden after word went round that some police officers were after her.

After the successful mission, which lasted nearly two weeks, Ms Kulea could only sit back and lament over the deep-rooted cultural practice that has continued to deny thousands of girls their education rights.

Having been born and brought up in Nolooroi Village of Kipsing Location, Ms Kulea has witnessed many young girls removed for school by their parents to be married off to elderly men.

For her, she was lucky and was educated up to college level and upon graduation, she was offered a job at a dispensary in her home area. “Many people in my area, including the elite, support this outdated cultural practice, but my conscience cannot allow me to sit back and watch the rights of the minors being violated, she says.

And for daring to go against the grain, she has paid dearly.

‘‘I have received death threats and this has forced me to quit my job. But that is no problem, I am sure I will get another job and still continue fighting the practice,’’  she says confidently.

Came into force

There are relevant laws in the land to guard against violation of child rights. Why are they not being applied to protect girls of Laikipia, Isiolo and Samburu districts? she asked.

Even as the Day of the African Child was marked last week, many child right activists are wondering what happened to Children’s Act of 2001.

Seven years after the Act came into force, the practice has continued to thrive especially among the pastoral communities, where girls are regarded as a source of bride-price (cattle).

Currently, Nanyuki Children’s Home has six girls rescued from marriage in the past one year. The youngest is aged nine.

And in Isiolo District, an average of 20 girls aged between nine and 14 years are married off every year, according to the area children’s officer Mr Maube Nabakwe.

The official says that the girls are mostly from the Samburu community.

Why has it proved hard for the relevant authorities to stamp out this outdated practice?

Many child rights activists feel that the Provincial Administration is not doing enough to reverse the practice.

Failed to fight

Chiefs from the affected communities have failed to fight the practice. At other times, they participate in the negotiations and even attend marriage ceremonies involving the minors, says the manager of Nanyuki Children’s Home, Ms Hellen Gathogo.

Ms Jennifer Koinante, who two years ago launched a campaign to fight female genital cutting in Laikipia North District, says district commissioners and district officers in the area do not condone the practice, but cannot succeed without the help of the chiefs.

Whenever a DC calls a meeting to address the issue, chiefs commit themselves that they will wipe out the practice. But it is happening right under their noses, says Ms Koinante.

Recently, Laikipia North DC Amos Marimba directed chiefs to arrest parents who were encouraging their girls to drop out of school to be circumcised before they can be married off.

Since the DC issued the directive, nothing much has happened on the ground and not a single parent has been arraigned in court.

Sexual offences

Legal experts argue that the Children’s Act 2001 is not adequate to wipe out the practice.

A Nanyuki-based lawyer notes that the Act only provides for imprisonment not exceeding 12 months or a fine not exceeding Sh50,000 for convicted offenders.

If the Act is incorporated in the Sexual Offences Act of 2006, at least it would be deterrent to would-be offenders, says the lawyer, Mr Amos Chweya.

The Sexual Offences Act (Act No 3) states: “Any person who for cultural or religious reasons forces another person to engage in a sexual act or any act that amounts to an offence under this Act, is guilty of an offence and is liable, upon conviction, to imprisonment for a term not less than 10 years.”


AUTHOR: Mwangi Ndirangu and Oscar King'Ori

URL: Click here

DATE: 23/06/2008

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