BUSIA, Mar 5 – In Butula, a rural community in western Kenya, a local NGO deals with 12 child marriage cases a week.
Some of these cases involve young girls who are inherited and forced to marry by a tribal practice called siebo.
Millicent Atieno is six months pregnant with her seventh child. Ordinarily, these should be exciting times for the average rural Kenyan mother, but Millicent is no ordinary mother. When her older sister died in 2005, this 15-year-old orphan was inherited by her 38-year-old brother-in-law, through a Kenyan Luhya tribe cultural practice known as siebo. She dropped out of school and took on the care of the three children that her sister had left behind.
Millicent is now 21-years-old, and she has since given birth to three additional children of her own, one being physically disabled. She has to be up by 5am daily to get her children to school, and then be at the neighbours’ farm by 6am.
She tills land for seven hours in exchange for the equivalent of one euro, which she uses to feed and clothe her children.
Her husband, a construction worker, is presently unemployed and lives far from home. He absolves himself of all responsibility, claiming “I did not ask Millicent to marry me. It is the elders who gave Millicent to me to take care of her sister’s children. For women, there is no right age to get married. Millicent now has three children. If she was a child she could not have given birth.”
HIV and superstition
In this community of Butula in western Kenya, Mary Makokha is a local activist who is the director of a non-governmental organization, REEP (Rural Education and Economic Enhancement Programme) which handles child marriage cases. She says that the organisation handles an average of 12 such cases per week.
Besides cultural practices, Makokha also attributes HIV as one of the leading causes of child marriages in Butula. “Due to ignorance and cultural beliefs, there is a common belief that HIV infection is a curse and a bad omen. When people become ill, they sell off their property to pay oracles and witchdoctors, who they believe can cure them. Eventually they die, leaving behind a poverty-stricken homestead and vulnerable orphans, who will resort to either prostitution in exchange for food, or will get married just to survive.”
Celestine Naiti is a 15-year-old orphan. After her parents died from AIDS, Celestine ended up being abused by her guardians. “My uncle would come home drunk everyday and beat me up. One day I went to get my hair shaved at the village centre, and my best friend introduced me to her 24-year-old brother-in-law. I went home with him that day and became his wife.”
Her husband, Geoffrey Wesonga, claims that he did not think that what he did was against the law because she came on her own accord. “I have seen other girls even younger than Celestine get married, so I thought it was fine. Celestine told me she was ready to stop school and marry me, because she was tired of the cruelty she was facing at her uncle’s home.” Celestine was rescued a week later and placed in an orphanage.
Children marrying children
There are also cases of children marrying children. These children attend school, and in the evenings they go back to the boy’s traditional hut. Miriam Mwachesa, a 16-year-old mother of two, recalls: “I had my firstborn child when my uncle raped me. Two years later I started a relationship with my classmate and I got a second baby with him.” Miriam has since dropped out of school to take up her mothering responsibilities.
With at least 12 child brides being rescued weekly in this community, Millicent Atieno’s children’s only fighting chance is perhaps the stable homestead that their mother currently provides, and staying in school. It may be too late for Millicent now she has resigned her life to motherhood and doing manual labour as a means of survival for her family. Perhaps she can live to see her dreams fulfilled by her children.
First published on Radio Netherlands Worldwide (http://www.rnw.nl)