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Child marriage: An overlooked evil as Kenya fights Covid-19 pandemic

Monday May 4 2020

 Child marriage

A young girl cuddles a baby. Child marriage has been overlooked as Kenya fights Covid-19. PHOTO | FILE 

NGARE KARIUKI
By NGARE KARIUKI
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For many children, the announcement that school was cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic was a cause for celebration. They would not miss the early mornings, boring lessons and endless homework.

However, 10-year-old *Lucy does not share this enthusiasm. A pupil at Naning’oi Girls’ School in Kajiado West constituency, Lucy’s heart sank when the headteacher informed her and her schoolmates that they would all be returning home because the government had shut down schools.

She explains: “I was confused because Naning’oi is not just a school for me, it’s also my home... I don’t want to go back to my father’s house.”

Lucy arrived at Naning’oi school early last year after running away from her grandmother’s house one morning.

SLEEPING ON A TREE
“My parents took me to my grandmother’s place with plans to cut me and then marry me off. But I ran away the next morning and hid in the bushes,” she recalls.

She vaguely remembers sleeping on a tree after darkness caught up with her as she walked towards Naning’oi school. She had heard through friends and neighbours that the school took in girls who did not want to get married.

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The next day, Lucy had to hide in a hole for hours after a bodaboda operator recognised her and threatened to take her back to her parents.

“I arrived at the rescue centre at 6am after walking most of the night. The matron took me in. I remember my father coming to the school to take me back the next day and there was a confrontation. The chief had to be called, and my father finally gave up and let me stay in school,” she says.

This is why the government directive that all schools be closed was the worst news Lucy and more than 50 other girls who do not just call Naning’oi their school, but their home and sanctuary, could have received.

With a student population of about 380, Naning’oi Primary School is not your typical academic institution. It also doubles as a rescue centre for girls who have escaped female genital cutting, and also for those who may not have been lucky enough to avoid the cut, but were determined to run away from a child marriage.

Ms Selina Nkoile addresses a group of Maasai
Ms Selina Nkoile addresses a group of Maasai youth on the value of education. PHOTO | NGARE KARIUKI

Established in 1999, Naning’oi is the first girls school in the remote village of Mosiro. It is also the only such institution within a 50km radius. The school is the only hope many of the girls here have for a better future. Moreover, a significant number are here against their parents’ wishes.

That is why even when schools close for the holidays, and other students head to their homes, the 50 or so girls simply step out of their school uniform and convert the school compound into a home. In fact, for some of the girls, the last time they were home was three years ago.

But this changed on March 15 when President Kenyatta ordered the closure of learning institutions as part of the Covid-19 pandemic response. For the first time in years, the girls, aged between nine and 13, suddenly had nowhere to go. Or rather, they did, but returning to their homes would come at a heavy cost.

MARRIED TWICE

This was certainly the case for *Angela, who, at 11, had already been married off twice. The first time, she was nine years old, just a few months after she healed from forced FGM. Her husband was three times her age. After living with him for a week, Angela fled back home, only for her father to beat her up and return her to the man who had paid bride price of several cows for her.

When she ran away again, the man would not take her back, saying, her flight had ashamed him. Angela’s father was forced to marry her off to another man since he needed more cows to refund the first man’s cattle.

Only 10 years old then, Angela heard about Naning’oi school from other girls in the neighbourhood. They told her stories about how the school took in girls who wanted to avoid the cut or marriage. One day she took her chances and ran away from home and joined Naning’oi.

Each girl’s story here sounds like a broken record, until you remember that this is the life experience of children that have barely lived a decade. Or when you imagine the pain and confusion of not only undergoing genital cutting, but also being plucked from family and sent to play wife to man your father’s age.

Naningói Primary School headmistress Teresia
Naningói Primary School headmistress Teresia Tikoishi. PHOTO | NGARE KARIUKI | NATION MEDIA GROUP

This is the hell that many of the girls at this school had escaped until that fateful day in March when they were forced to return to the very places they had escaped.

“The order came abruptly, so we didn’t have time to make any formal arrangements,” the school principal, Ms Teresia Tikoishi, told DN2.

“The chief visited and said unless we had a way of protecting the children from the coronavirus, we had no choice but to let them go home,” she adds.

Ms Selina Nkoile, 26, a former student at Naningo’i who has dedicated her life to rescuing girls in Mosiro from child marriage and supporting their education, says some of the girls went to live with relatives and family friends because the situation back at their homes was unpredictable.

GOOD FUTURE
She adds: “I know that education is the only way to a good future and education is the only way to an empowered society, so, my heart bleeds knowing that there are many children out in the village who are being denied this opportunity.”

Ms Nkoile was among the first generation of girls to ever step inside a classroom in Mosiro, Kajiado West Constituency. She now helps fund the education of girls in her village through her not-for-profit outfit, Nashipai Maasai Community Project.

“I was booked for marriage when I turned nine years old. Luckily, around the same time, some people from a not-for-profit agency around our village came looking for girls they could sponsor to school,” she says.

“This was almost 20 years ago. I’m who I am today because some strangers believed in the value of educating girls instead of marrying them off for cattle.”

Ms Nkoile has been staying in touch with several villagers who have offered to host some of the girls who were hesitant to return to their homes. But they can only afford to do it for so long.

She adds: “I’m worried that the longer these containment measures take, the more likely the girls will eventually be reconnected to their parents, taking them back to the very situations they ran away from.”

It may be too soon to tell what the future holds for these girls, but the circumstances don’t look promising, especially after the government postponed the reopening of schools for a month.

Unesco estimates that Covid-19 forced 743 million girls out of school in 185 countries (approximately 1.54 billion children and youth enrolled in school or university are now at home), but the chances of girls going back to school when this is over are lower than those of boys.

Beside the surge in incidents of domestic violence against women, there is also the increased risk of early and forced marriage in marginalised communities where the practice continues - such as in Kajiado County, where FGM is practiced all year round.

SOURCE OF INCOME

“I’m afraid now that all the common areas in the village are out of bounds, we have less accountability. Also, the restriction of market days may motivate many fathers to marry off their young daughters, who they view as a source of income,” Ms Nkoile says.

Ms Selina Nkoile. PHOTO | NGARE KARIUKI |
Ms Selina Nkoile. PHOTO | NGARE KARIUKI | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Mr Robert Aseda, the programme coordinator at the Network for Adolescent and Youth of Africa, says the Covid-19 response threatens to reverse a lot of the human rights gains made over the years, especially for young girls and women.

“Just because the world has come to a standstill due to Covid-19, it doesn't mean the sexual and reproductive health and rights of women and girls needs have come to a standstill too. This is especially the case in informal settlements and remote parts of Kenya. The dynamics there are very different, and the implications even more catastrophic,” Mr Aseda says.

He notes that the containment measures have been urban-focused in their nature. Which makes sense, because a large majority of Covid-19 cases are in Nairobi. However, he notes the effect of these measures is being felt across the country and women and girls from poor and marginalised areas are bearing the brunt of it all.

“The case in Mosiro, where girls are now exposed to child marriage with little to no protection, might be the saddest of all,” he laments.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has already noted that violence against women remains a major threat to global public health and women’s health during emergencies.

The likelihood that women in an abusive relationship and their children will be exposed to violence is dramatically increased, as families spend more time in close contact and as they cope with the additional stress that comes with job losses.

The economic impact of Covid-19 response measures means that girls who once had a shot at a better future through education may soon become the only logical economic relief for the family — as child brides.

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