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Student by day, wife by night: Woes of girls chained to cultural bondage

Wednesday January 29 2020

FGM

Local communities still hold onto archaic cultural practices — withdrawing their daughters from school, subjecting them to circumcision and marrying them off for dowry. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

VITALIS KIMUTAI
By VITALIS KIMUTAI
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At the crack of dawn, Doreen* (not her real name) wakes up, prepares breakfast for her family, and dashes to the bathroom to shower before dressing up to start her journey to a day secondary school some two kilometres away.

TRADITION

Leaving her husband (a shopkeeper) at home, she braves the Monday morning chill as the sun rises, joining a file of fellow students trekking to school in Chebunyo, Chepalungu, Bomet County.

Save for her suitors, parents, fellow students and teachers who are in the know, there is nothing to betray the fact that she is no ordinary Form Two student.

At the age of 16, she is one of the teenagers who have been married off but enrolled in school in a bid to beat the law protecting children from early marriages and sexual exploitation.

The same applies to 15-year-old Jackline*, who underwent female genital mutilation in November last year. The following month, she was married off to a boda-boda operator in Murkan, Transmara, Narok County.

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“We have no choice but to follow the traditions that dictate we undergo FGM and get married irrespective of how we feel and what we want to do with our lives,” said Doreen in an interview.

Jackline* said: “We were told we must go to school or get arrested by local administrators and police. Unfortunately, most of us who have children are stuck between school and parental responsibilities.” 

OFFENDERS

During the day they are students while, in the evening and weekends, they play their roles as wives in a new trend that has crept into parts of Kericho, Bomet and Narok counties.

Local communities still hold onto archaic cultural practices — withdrawing their daughters from school, subjecting them to circumcision and marrying them off for dowry.

“Due to the pressure that administrators and various government agencies have asserted on the society as well as the implementation of the Children’s Act, offenders have devised new methods to circumvent the law — marrying off young girls and enrolling them in school,” said Bomet County Commissioner Geoffrey Omoding.

“We have arrested several offenders. Our position is that both parents of the newly married along with husbands of the teenagers must be arrested and arraigned in court,” he said. 

Chiefs and their assistants have been directed to closely work with education officers, teachers, police, Nyumba Kumi committee members, elders and the clergy in cracking down on the offenders, he said.

Most of the offenders, it has emerged, are boda-boda operators, traders and farmers, most of whom dropped out of school for various reasons.

SEX PESTS

Kenya Union of Post-Primary Education Teachers (Kuppet) Narok branch Secretary Charles Ng'eno said special attention should be given to the education of girls in the region as the school dropout rate is high due to outdated cultural practices.

“Apart from enforcing the Children’s Act, there is a need to sensitise local communities on the benefits of educating their children, the health hazards posed on girls by FGM, early marriages and pregnancies, which could lead to deaths,” he said.

Bomet County director in charge of gender and social services Rose Chepkorir said cases of defilement and rape are common in the region.

“Attacks on girls by sex pests have led to unplanned pregnancies and rampant spread of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/Aids," said Ms Chepkorir.

She noted that the county government has adopted measures to sensitise the public on children’s rights, a move that has started bearing fruit.

ALTERNATIVE

Narok Deputy Governor Chepkirui Aruasa said girls in the region require to be mentored by women in all professions and sectors of the economy.

“Alternative rites of passage from childhood to womanhood are slowly but surely taking root among local communities in what has seen a rise in the number of girls transiting from primary to secondary, universities and various middle level colleges,” she said.

Kericho County Youth and Sports Chief Officer Anthony Koskei said sensitisation programmes are under way in multinational tea estates.

“Cases of early marriages have in the past been reported in multinational tea estates straddling Kericho and Bomet, but they have swiftly been dealt with by various arms of government,” said Mr Koskei

Mr Koskei noted that Governor Paul Chepkwony has initiated an athletics programme in a bid to ensure that women who have dropped out of school for various reasons get a source of livelihood.

DREAMS

“The Governor’s Women Athletes Empowerment Programme is biased in favour of girls and women aged between 15 and 39, be they parents or not,” he said. 

“They may have dropped out of school for reasons beyond their handling such as early marriages and unplanned pregnancies. The programme will give them a new lease of life to pursue their dreams.”​