In October 2017, I was selected to represent Kenya in Johannesburg in the launch of a youth report on the future of African children. The report is called the UNICEF Generation 2030 2.0 report on the future of African children.
One of the issues that arose during the youth workshop was the importance of empowering children and especially through ending all forms of abuse. On November 22nd 2017, UNICEF Kenya launched an awareness campaign on ending child marriage in Kenya. Using the hash tag #EndChildMarriageKE, it seeks to spark an online conversation on the importance of ending child marriage. This includes investing in education, teaching children about their rights, teaching parents the importance of protecting their children e.t.c.
I have been very keen when it comes to this conversation. As a law student taking up an elective unit called Children and the Law, I have been made aware that many children are under threat of child marriage. According to UNICEF statistics, 1 in 4 Kenyan girls is married before the age of 18, a worrying trend.
It is important to end child marriage. This is because it is one of the many forms of gender based violence which is against human rights. Often children who are married at a very young age feel that they have no choice. Most times, parents marry off their daughters in order to get bride price which they believe will lead them out of poverty. When a girl gets pregnant out of wedlock, it is seen as a shame to the family and hence she would rather be seen married to an elderly man instead of giving birth at home.
Early marriage therefore tends to be the beginning of a cycle of abuse. Since most girls get married to much older men, they are overworked in the home. They are made to walk many kilometres to fetch water, sweep the house, prepare meals and give birth to many children while their peers are in school. Since they are still very young, they don’t have a say when it comes to intimate relationships and therefore marital sexual relations ends up being a torture for them.
Giving birth early is also very dangerous to their health because their bodies are not fully developed. This is a leading cause of fistula among child mothers. Child marriage is a leading cause of maternal morbidity. Domestic abuse is also very common for child brides. Many men do not value women and this is often worse if their wives are underage. It is rare to find child brides who go back to school. A lack of education means that they are not in a position to get decent employment and therefore they end up earning little or no money. This makes them dependent on their husbands with no say over many decisions that are made in the house.
While there are various local and international legislations that have been passed to make child marriage illegal, the challenge comes to implementing them. In many societies, women are still viewed as weak and without a place in the community. Their role is to submit to the husbands and education is not valued since they often believe that educating a girl is a waste of time because they will eventually get married.
However, I would like to recognise that in Kenya, we have many activists whose stories may not be known but they work tirelessly each day to ensure that children have better lives. They run rescue centres and community outreach programmes that raise awareness on the dangers of child marriage and the importance of educating children. Various non- governmental organisations are also supporting children who are rescued from early marriage.
I would like to see more efforts like these in my country. There are many ways of ending child marriage. More and more people should come out and educate their children and especially boys on the importance of valuing women and girls. Gender based violence often arises from socio-cultural norms that are destructive and negatively impact the development of the country. By ending child marriage, we will have taken major steps to achieving Sustainable Goal 5 of realising gender equality.
The Christmas season has now come to an end and I ask myself how many girls were married off during that time when the custom is so rampant. How many girls will not have not have the chance to transition into secondary school because they don’t have school fees to join or because they didn’t do well enough so they have been forced into marriage? How long will this continue and what can I do as an individual?