Girls not brides: Push to wipe out abhorrent child marriages, FGM

In a colourful event in Narok West, pupils of Nkoilale Primary School in celebration of culture and education, took centre stage with a vivid performance reflecting the harsh realities many young girls in Narok undergo – Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and child marriages.

The festival was organised by Tareto Africa, a local organisation that works to end harmful practices among the Maasai community. It was part of the organisation’s “Trees for Girls (T4G)” project aimed at educating girls on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) and environmental conservation through tree planting exercises.

Through the play, the pupils depicted the trials of Nalemuta, a spirited young girl whose aspirations for education were on the verge of being extinguished. Nalemuta’s father, pushed to the brink by the relentless drought, contemplated marrying her off to an elderly suitor, a move that would only shatter the young girl’s dreams and compromise her future.

As the audience pondered the implications of those words, Nalemuta’s dreams of an education, of a future filled with promise and potential, were to be sacrificed for livestock in the face of an unforgiving drought.

But in this tale of adversity, there was another voice – a mother who refused to be silenced. Depicted as the voice of reason, she said no to the plans that would see her daughter subjected to FGM and married off to an old man. Her determination and plea for help from the authorities became a turning point in the narrative, illustrating the power of collective action and advocacy in the fight against entrenched harmful practices.

Narok County First Lady, Agnes Ntutu speaking during the “Trees for Girls” festival organised by Tareto Africa in Nkoilale Primary School.

Nalemuta’s story is an all-too-familiar one in most parts of Narok and other arid and semi-arid lands (ASALs) in Kenya. Most parents from these regions have long grappled with the devastating effects of drought, leaving them with limited options in the face of dwindling resources.

Droughts are one of the factors that increase the risk of child marriage, as some families may see it as a way to reduce their economic burden or to secure dowry.

According to Unicef, Kenya has the 20th highest absolute number of child brides in the world, with 23 per cent of girls married before their 18th birthday. In Narok County, where Tareto Africa operates, the prevalence of child marriage is even higher, at 40 per cent.

These numbers have been worsened, in part, by climate change. Over the past seven years, there have been increasingly frequent droughts and a plague of locusts linked to climate change. This phenomenon has depleted resources such as water and grazeland which, in turn, has led to the death of the very economic backbone of pastoralist communities – livestock.

To cope, many families have resolved to pull their young daughters from school and marry them off in exchange for dowry, ideally comprised of livestock and other presents.

Kenya has enacted laws and policies to prohibit and punish FGM and child marriage. In 1990, when Kenya ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, a United Nations (UN) human rights treaty between nations to protect children from abuses, child marriage officially became prohibited.

This law was further cemented by additional laws including the Children’s Act of 2001, the Sexual Offences Act of 2006 and the Marriage Act of 2014. The last one prohibits and criminalises the marriage of children under the age of 18.

Despite the existence of these laws, these practices are still common because they are not always enforced or respected by some communities, especially in remote and rural areas where there is limited access to information and services.

Among the Maasai, for instance, child marriages and FGM are deeply rooted in their culture and tradition. They are seen as rites of passage from childhood to adulthood. However, they have devastating consequences for the girls’ health, education, rights, and opportunities.

Girls who undergo FGM are at risk of infections, bleeding, infertility, complications during childbirth, and psychological trauma. Those who are married off early are often forced to drop out of school, face domestic violence and abuse, have limited decision-making power, and bear children before they are physically and emotionally ready.

In a move to combat these practices, Tareto Africa, led by Leshan Kereto, initiated the Trees for Girls campaign to empower young girls and prevent child marriage and FGM by providing alternative rites of passage, scholarships, rescue centres, and community sensitisation.

“We started Trees for Girls after the girls we sponsor reported that they are given out for marriage because of drought, which has led to many livestock dying. Parents then, are forced to marry off their daughters to replenish their sheds and to reduce the pressure of putting food on the table for many kids,” said Kereto, the Director of Tareto Africa.

Kereto added that the Trees for Girls project, which started with the training of nurses in Narok in February 2023, has expanded to four schools including Nkoilale, Ntulele, and Naboisho Primary Schools as well as Masai Girls School.

In each school, Tareto Africa formed clubs called T4G and trained the girls on everything from reproductive health, teenage pregnancies, and child marriages to making reusable sanitary pads, and environmental conservation through tree planting.

“Our efforts culminated in this festival where the girls compete by speaking out about everything they have learnt through poems, modelling, and acting. The winners get sponsored trips, and the best girl will get a full scholarship for secondary and university education,” said Kereto.

Nkoilale Primary School’s headteacher, Moses Pareiwua, who also trained the girls said that the festival was a success, as it displayed their talents and potential on SRHR and environmental issues.

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