Poverty hits ef­forts to curb child mar­riages in Turkana Girls in the fam­ily serve as the source of wealth in our com­mu­nity.” JAMES EKUWOM | TURKANA CEN­TRAL RES­I­DENT

Girls are de­nied for­mal ed­u­ca­tion to pre­pare them for fu­ture roles as wives from the age of four

Business Daily (Kenya) - - NEWS INDEPTH - An­nie Njanja an­janja@ke.na­tion­media.com

It is af­ter­noon deep in­side a re­mote vil­lage in Turkana County and a lit­tle girl rests against a wheel­bar­row loaded with three jer­rycans with 60 litres of wa­ter. The heat and ex­haus­tion from nu­mer­ous trips she has made fetch­ing wa­ter are tak­ing a toll on her.

For a mo­ment the girl don­ning a beau­ti­ful tra­di­tional dress seems ab­sent-minded, blankly gaz­ing into the hori­zon un­til I in­ter­rupt her with greet­ings.

And with the in­no­cence of a child, she re­sponded with a warm wide smile. I soon learn she is called Judy Atabo as I helped her push the wheel­bar­row home. We had be­come friends.

For the next three hours, young Atabo was my com­pan­ion, gra­ciously show­ing me around the vil­lage as I in­ter­acted with el­ders, keen to know more about the com­mu­nity’s un­pop­u­lar Ishanga cul­tural prac­tice-com­monly known as bead­ing.

Ac­cord­ing to the bead­ing tra­di­tion, adult males are al­lowed to have a tem­po­rary mar­i­tal re­la­tion­ship with a very young girl. They buy beads for the girl with ap­proval her fam­ily as a sign of en­gage­ment. The ob­jec­tive of the bead­ing is to pre­pare the young girl for mar­riage in the fu­ture.

As I walked around with 15-year-old Atabo, I did not fail to no­tice the lay­ers of multi-coloured beaded neck­laces she is wear­ing. I soon learn that each piece sym­bol­ises a stage of her life.

She in­formed me that she had been de­clared a po­ten­tial bride by the time she learned to talk flu­ently and that at four years old, she al­ready had a suitor, a man old enough to be her fa­ther.

Atabo got her first set of beads at this ten­der age, mark­ing the be­gin­ning of a rite of pas­sage among the Turkana peo­ple that con­firms a girl has been booked for mar­riage.

Born in a fam­ily of one boy and four girls in the re­mote re­gion of Kaa­pus, Turkana Cen­tral, she wit­nessed her par­ents send her sib­lings to school while she re­mained be­hind to help with house chores and to graze her fa­ther’s goats as she got ready to play wife when the time came.

With each pass­ing year, her suitor parted with tens of goats, camels, cows, and don­keys as part of the bride price for Atabo, now 15, and who is soon set to leave her fa­ther’s house for a life in mar­riage.

This is the fate that faces most girls born in the im­pov­er­ished Turkana County.

The tra­di­tion has been a life­long means of ac­quir­ing wealth, es­pe­cially for strug­gling fam­i­lies. Here, daugh­ters re­main prized prop­erty, trained for a life of servi­tude in ex­change for live­stock.

Atabo had been vis­it­ing the sis­ter, who has since dropped out of school to start a fam­ily when I met up with her in Namoruput, Turkana Cen­tral.

“My wish is to go to school but my fa­ther chose to find me a hus­band, I have

been at home graz­ing his goats and do­ing house chores. They say that they are prepar­ing me for a life as a wife and mother,” says Atabo.

James Ekuwom a mid­dle-aged man from Loima in Turkana Cen­tral equates a girl to a prof­itable in­vest­ment and as­serts that he sees no point of ac­cord­ing them for­mal ed­u­ca­tion. He says school only serves at “de­valu­ing” them.

“Girls in the fam­ily serve as the source of wealth in our com­mu­nity. If you have four daugh­ters, to be fair only three can go to school while one is left be­hind. The fa­ther needs to at least marry off one to re­coup the money spent in ed­u­cat­ing other sib­lings and for him to also have wealth (live­stock),” says Ekuwom.

Un­like in most com­mu­ni­ties in Kenya, where the birth of a boy is cel­e­brated with pomp and honour, in Turkana, women giv­ing birth to girls tend to re­ceive bet­ter treat­ment from their hus­bands and com­mu­nity. And this spe­cial treat­ment is marked right from de­liv­ery, when the mid­wife while an­nounc­ing the birth sounds four ul­u­la­tions for a girl, while a boy only gets three.

Ekuwom ex­plains that bead­ing starts when the child aged two, and it is also at this time that the ini­tial dowry (in live­stock) is paid.

The first set of white beads are fol­lowed by blue beads after a year or two, a process that goes on un­til the girl’s dowry is fully paid, of­ten by the time she is 12 to 15 years old. All this while, the girl stays in a spe­cial house in her par­ent’s many­atta ( the homestead).

Kenyan law stip­u­lates that mar­riage must be con­sen­sual and par­ties get­ting in­volved be should be aged above 18. By law, any child be­low the stip­u­lated age limit can­not en­ter a valid mar­riage con­tract.

Yet, the prac­tice of mar­ry­ing off chil- dren is rife in Turkana re­gion.

Michael Losee, a Loro­gon chief from Turkana North, told the Busi­ness Daily that poverty pre­vents most chil­dren in the area from en­joy­ing their ba­sic right to ed­u­ca­tion forc­ing them into early mar­riages.

“Poverty is the great­est en­emy in this re­gion, the sit­u­a­tion is so bad that chil­dren are forced to go out to look for own food. If a young girl in a des­per­ate sit­u­a­tion finds a man who can prom­ise to take care of her re­gard­less of his age, chances are that she and the par­ents will agree to the ar­range­ment,” he says.

Cur­rently, the re­gion re­mains ad­versely af­fected by drought and the sit­u­a­tion has be­come se­vere fol­low­ing the er­ratic weather con­di­tions that have faced the coun­try the last two years.

The drought means an in­suf­fi­cient sup­ply of food and wa­ter for both peo­ple and live­stock.

Losee, whose lo­ca­tion of about 3,000 peo­ple is served by two pub­lic pri­mary schools, says his job de­scrip­tion in­cludes en­cour­ag­ing Loro­gon res­i­dents to take their chil­dren to school and by openly dis­cour­ag­ing early mar­riages and aid­ing ar­rest where par­ents flout the law.

Chiefs, the gov­ern­ment rep­re­sen­ta­tives at the vil­lage level, have been in­stru­men­tal in get­ting girls to en­rol in school by tam­ing child mar­riages.

Es­ther Tioko, a mother of five from Loima, says reg­u­lar vis­its by chiefs to have helped de­ter some fam­i­lies from mar­ry­ing off young girls.

“All the chil­dren now are in nurs­ery (point­ing to a close by early child­hood de­vel­op­ment cen­tre) school. You get ar­rested if you fail to take them to school. There is no point in hav­ing them wear Ishanga at such an early age now be­cause the gov­ern­ment is watch­ing,” says Tioko.

Kap­tir lo­ca­tion chief Charles Lop­uya says the no­madic pas­toral­ists are the hard­est to reach but ef­forts are un­der­way to get their chil­dren en­rolled in mo­bile schools in Turkana South.

“No­madic peo­ple are the hard­est to get to be­cause they move with chil­dren, but when­ever they come around in July, we try as much as pos­si­ble to get the chil­dren to school even if it of­ten hap­pens to be for a short while,” he says.

“We are now set­ting up mo­bile schools for them to try to fol­low them wher­ever they go.”

Lop­uya uses the Nyumba Kumi Ini­tia­tive, which makes it the re­spon­si­bil­ity of per­sons liv­ing in a com­mu­nity to re­port when­ever a child mar­riage ar­range­ment process is on course in their neigh­bour­hood. The lo­ca­tion, served by 14 pri­mary schools all with early child­hood de­vel­op­ment cen­tres, plays host to adult ed­u­ca­tion classes, es­pe­cially dur­ing the week­ends and hol­i­days to keep the par­ents well in­formed on the ad­van­tages of keep­ing their chil­dren in schools.

Owing to adult ed­u­ca­tion a new crop of women and men cham­pi­oning for girls right to ed­u­ca­tion is slowly ris­ing in Turkana, giv­ing hope that the op­pres­sive cul­ture will die in the near fu­ture.

Alice Amo­jong, a mother of seven from Namoruput, cher­ishes mod­ern ed­u­ca­tion, which she says im­proves the value of her girls.

“School is good. All my chil­dren are in school. I know that when I am mar­ry­ing off my daugh­ter when she is well ed­u­cated it means I will get more wealth be­cause she will be able to send me money when­ever she gets paid, in ad­di­tion to the dowry that the hus­band will pay,” she said.

Josephine Na­muya, chief of Lo­kichar lo­ca­tion, in Turkana South, has also been proac­tive in flush­ing beaded girls out of their par­ents’ homes and to the class­rooms.

She says schools in her lo­ca­tion have been forced to cater for needy stu­dents’ learn­ing ma­te­ri­als in­clud­ing uni­forms, just to keep them in school.

“It is tough but we are try­ing where we can to keep the chil­dren in schools, es­pe­cially where the par­ents are too poor or just don’t care.

“We are also en­rolling beaded girls to schools and get­ting rid of the beads slowly. The re­sis­tance has sub­sided in re­cent years after we started pros­e­cut­ing par­ents mar­ry­ing off young girls, but the progress made so far is great,” she says.


CUL­TURE Turkana women at their many­at­tas.


SUP­PORT The writer with Alice Amo­jong, a mother of seven who is pro-girl em­pow­er­ment at her home dur­ing the in­ter­view.


AD­MIN­IS­TRA­TION Ka­putir Lo­ca­tion chief Charles Lop­uya.

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