Underage girls in Maasai 'sold' as payment for family debts

James Nanga, manager of Maasai Development Project Education Centre, a children's home within Mara in Narok West addressing girls rescued from harmful cultural practices. [Boniface Okendo, Standard]

Immediately after her father was buried, a meeting was set up at *Naipanoi's home in Narok.

Besides losing her father, the sole provider in her family, Naipanoi was about to lose her innocence and childhood to cultural diehards.

That particular gathering by her relatives including her mother was one of the meetings held and eight-year-old Naipanoi, whose name has been changed for safety and protection, was the key topic.

After it was apparent that her mother could not pay the outstanding debt her father had borrowed before his untimely death, it was resolved in the meeting that Naipanoi be given out to the lender in exchange.

Her innocence and childhood was about to get robbed by her own people, in a meeting she knew nothing about, debts she never heard of and her life was now tagged on it.

It is not uncommon in the Maasai community where young girls are given out by their parents as payment for unforgiving debts, especially after the borrower (usually father) dies before settling the debts.

For Naipanoi, her fate had been sealed. She had been freely given out to the creditor's family, not as a daughter but as "property" they were at liberty to use as they wished.

She was only eight-year-old when the deal was cut and her mother too, agreed to the plan since she did not have anything to sell to clear debts.

Luckily, someone got wind of the plot and alerted James Nanga, the manager of Maasai Development Project Education Centre, a children's home within Mara in Narok West.

"Someone alerted me that something was going on there and we rescued her before she could be given out. She did not know she was being exchanged for debts," said Nanga.

"That was the last of the three negotiation meetings between the two sides. The mother had also agreed to add two cows to accompany the girl for payment for her deceased husband," he added.

Without bothering about the outstanding debts, Nanga rescued the girl and housed her at the Rescue Centre in Siana.

The facility is a safety net for girls running away and rescued from early and forced marriages, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), among other cultural practices in the Maasai community.

When asked how much the debtor owed, Nanga said they do not follow to know amounts owed as long as the girls in question are secured in rescue centers.

According to Nanga, debt collection in the Maasai culture mostly happens after the borrower, who are mostly men, dies.

"Maasai believe that everyone's fortunes can change and so you don't pressure someone to pay debts if they are still alive. It only intensifies after they die because they do not know if the bereaved would afford to pay," he explained.

He added that most girls who are victims of the tradition end up living miserable lives because they are culturally not entitled to any right once they are handed over to the creditor.

"The creditors are not obligated to take them to school. In most cases they are treated like slaves looking after livestock in the grazing lands and the lender is at liberty to cut her, marry her to recoup his money from the paid bride price or give her to the son as wife," said Nanga.

The cultural tradition conforms the girls to a life of hopelessness, desperation and fate. Those who are unlucky spend their lifetime negotiating for freedom.

Naipanoi feels safe at the facility where we met her but she was lucky to be rescued before execution of the plot. Some of the girls at the centre went through more agonising experiences.

*Naserian was rescued from a similar predicament three years after her family gave her out as currency.

Unlike eight-year-old Naipanoi, Naserian was a 'money wife'. She was married off to pay for her father's debt when she was only 11.

"I was so hurt when I went to pick her up from police station. She was the first girl we ever rescued after being married for that long only at 11," said Nanga.

Naserian later joined school and is currently in Form Three.

Their lives are now secured but for others whose money must be found and debts paid, are a distance from getting married off young and living life as prisoners of the tradition

Girls who are victims of the tradition end up being subjected to modern slavery, assault, child labour and in most occasions, they are deflowered when given out as 'money wives'.

At Maasai Development Project Education Centre, there are about four children who were exchanged for debts before they were rescued.

According to Nanga, it is more devastating for children born out of wedlock.

"The community treats them as outcasts and they're easily given out for payment. They even have a mark on their bodies to indicate that something is not right with them," he said.

Those who are rescued by authorities are left to pick up what bits of their lives they can put together, embrace the scars and change their life story.

"Most of the girls we have rescued from such traditions are below 10 years. When parents are overburdened and lack cows or goats to sell, they give their young girls," he added.

By way of an obsolete tradition that strips young girls of their dignity and decency, girls undergoing harmful and unforgiving cultural practices scatter across the mountainous terrain of Mara or under welfare of the children's home which has been a safe haven for Maasai girls since 2004.

Here, children are counselled and taught that they are worthy of a descent and a happy life. They are taught that they can and should take charge of their bodies and their lives in entirety.

There are about 70 children housed at the facility.

Those who are not rescued from creditors are running away from plotted FGM or forced early marriages.

In the middle of treacherous terrain in Mara, Nanga said children brave wild animals through the bushes just to get to the facility after escaping cultural practices that disadvantage young girls and women in the community.

"We have made it known to the children in the community and in the schools that if they feel in danger, they can run here or escape to the nearest church, police post or a hospital. We have a sizable number of children in this facility who ran from their homes to escape dangers," said Nanga.

They're later procedurally processed through police, hospital and children's offices.

People like Nanga who have defied the cultural trends in the community to protect the children enrage many of the men in the community dominated by a centuries-old patriarchal culture.

"We are perceived as enemies in this community because Maasai believe that it's their right to cut a girl and marry off once they're of age (teenage). They have taken so long to embrace girls' education but there's notable improvement," said Nanga.

However, laxity among law enforcers has been a key hindrance in taming violation of children's rights in the community hence exposing them to higher risks of violence, abuse and sexual exploitation.

Last school holiday, about 28 girls were cut but not the culprits are still roaming across the border.

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