Early marriages still rife among pastoralists

She stared at her 16-month old son who was still writhing in pain. The boy had accidentally stumbled on boiling water in a sufuria at home while Ashuku was preparing lunch.

"I left a jiko outside and went to get maize flour in the house. I heard a loud scream and ran to my son. I pulled him out, removed the clothes and his skin came off in my hands. That's how I found myself in the hospital," said Askuku who hails from Ngaramara, in Isiolo County.

"I have been at the hospital for three weeks now, but today I will go home after well-wishers paid the hospital bill. We were unable to raise the money as my husband has no job. The cows we depended on died due to the prolonged drought."

After being discharged, The Standard accompanied the teenage mother to her matrimonial home where we were met with no food or water.

Luckily, we had shopping for her to care for her needs for several days.

Askuku tells us she was married of to her 31-year-old husband at the age 14 when she was in class six.

"In our family we are 10 children and my father decided to marry us (four girls) off so as to reduce the burden of taking care of us. Because my husband was poor, he was required to pay five cows and 10 goats," said Askuku.

Given that the couple has lost many animals to drought, women have resorted to charcoal burning and that they are now the bread winners of the family, but the money they get, they give it out to their husbands to budget for the household needs.

"If I knew this is how life would be, I would have turned down the offer and ran away from home. Now I have a sick child, I have to burn charcoal to make money which I give it all to my husband. Sometimes, he spends it drinking illicit brew then we have nothing to eat at home."

Parents marry off their children at a young age for prestige and a source of income. This is also to ensure that the girls don't get pregnant while at their fathers' homes as that will reduce the bride price.

Marrying off a young girl in this community will also earn the family a few cows, camel and goats as compared to those who have attained 18 years. The family can sell the animals and use the money for their upkeep.

Maimuna Bonaya, who hails from Nasiroi area in Isiolo County says she was married off at the age of 16 to a herdsman as a fourth wife who already had sired nine children from his first three marriages.

Her parents chose to marry off all the five girls in the family of nine due to hard economic times. According to Maimuna, her parents received 10 cows, a camel and 20 goats as her bride price.

"I became pregnant at 16 but had a miscarriage at the fifth month since my body was too weak to carry the pregnancy. After two months I got pregnant again when my body was still weak, and again I had a miscarriage at the second month," said Maimuna

Her husband accused her of terminating the pregnancies and warned her of dire consequences if she ever again has another miscarriage.

"On November 7, I gave birth to a baby girl and my husband is now happy but my health has really deteriorated. I am anaemic and was diagnosed with gestational hypertension and the baby has breathing complications," said Maimuna

The story is the same for Rukia Mohammed, 19, from Gohan area and has three children.

"I had just finished class eight at the age of 14 when I first became pregnant but my boyfriend who was then in secondary school ran away. At 16, my parents forced me to get married since I was a disgrace to the family," says Rukia.

She added: "I got married as a second wife and my husband paid only five goats and two cows since I already had a child and I wasn't a virgin. After I gave birth to a boy, he divorced me on grounds that he cannot take care of a baby sired with another man."

Rukia went back to her parents but was excommunicated for being a bad omen to the family and was told to look for ways for fending for her children. She rented a house in Isiolo town and while here, a tout who was giving her food, got her pregnant and took off.

"At 19, am now raising three children with three different fathers as a single mother. It's very hard being a single mother, my three ex-husbands don't take care of their babies. I have to wash people's clothes or give in to sex to get some money, about Sh50 to Sh200 a day in order to feed my children."

She added: "Our outdated culture is killing us. Our parents force us to get married at a tender age in exchange of cows and goats. If you get married before 15 years, your bride price is 30 goats and 10 cows or more, above fifteen but still a virgin, its 20 goats and 10 cows but if you have a child, the bride price is less than 5 cows and 5 goats,"

According to Isiolo County Director of Education, James Nyaga, early marriages and teenage pregnancies in the county is the biggest impediment to the girl child education.

"Once the girls undergo female genital mutilation (FGM), they are married off. The community has a tendency of thinking that after FGM, the girls are mature to get married in exchange of animals," said Nyaga

He added: "The girls are not given opportunity to pursue their education and realize their dreams but are exchanged with livestock at a tender age,"

Nyaga said that in the just concluded KCPE, five candidates were pregnant and two of them gave birth before the exams.

"One of them started experiencing labour pains when sitting for the paper and we rushed her to the hospital as an emergency case and another one had complications and gave birth at Nanyuki County referral hospital. She took the exams there after giving birth to a premature baby," said Nyaga

"Retrogressive culture, FGM, poverty, nomadic life and harsh economic times are the leading factors while underage girls are married of in the county in exchange of livestock," Isiolo County Commissioner, Geoffrey Omoding, said that

"We discovered that chiefs and their assistants were condoning the vice by holding Kangaroo courts in exchange of kickbacks instead of fighting for the rights of the girl child. Two chiefs in Oldonyiro have already been suspended for supporting early marriages," he added.

According to the National Council for Population Development, Kenya is among the countries with a high burden of teenage pregnancy and motherhood in Sub Saharan Africa.

The report notes that currently, one in every five teenage girls (18 per cent) between the ages of 15-19 is either pregnant with their first child or has given birth. This prevalence has not changed since 2008 and that 50.9 per cent of young women had engaged in sex before hitting 18.

The NCPD report also revealed that in 2021 alone, 2,256 girls adolescent girls aged between 10-19 presenting with pregnancy during their ante-natal clinic in Isiolo County.