On her own, a 12-year-old girl does not have the authority to fight the horrific tradition of selling a daughter for a wedding dowry.
But Joy was not alone. Thanks to the power of our community she had a local mentor, an educated sister, the Kenya Works child protection team and our entire global community standing with her.
The Fight to End Child Marriage in Kenya
At its core, child marriage is a form of violence against children that denies girls their fundamental rights to health, safety and education.
In Kenya, marriage is illegal before the age of 18. Nonetheless, child marriage is accepted and recognized in many communities. A staggering 23 percent of girls are married before their 18th birthday. Four percent are married before their 15th year, a practice heavily concentrated in specific regions. The national average reduced slightly between 2008 and 2014 from 26 percent to 23 percent (Kenya Bureau of Statistics), indicating that national and global efforts to ensure girls' rights are effective.
The pandemic and its economic aftermath along with climate-driven food shortages are working against that momentum. With less than eight years to the 2030 target date to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, it's more important than ever to act quickly to protect girls from harmful practices by ensuring bodily autonomy and gender equality.
The causes of child marriage include socio-economic factors, such as poverty, low education and the treatment of girls as property. Capacity gaps among some police officers and court officials and cultural reluctance on the part of some community and religious leaders hamper efforts to delay marriage.
Kenya Works is on the ground combating the issue through all of our pillars. In 2020 we became an official member of the international organization Girls Not Brides, a global partnership of more than 1500 organizations committed to ending child marriage and enabling girls to fulfill their potential. The following content is derived from their reporting.
Child marriage is driven by gender inequality and the belief that girls are inferior to boys. In Kenya, it is exacerbated by:
Poverty: Girls living in poor households are twice as likely to marry under the age of 18 as girls in higher-income households. A 2016 UNICEF study shows that girls are often seen as assets or as an economic burden, rather than individuals with rights. Fathers from the most impoverished communities will arrange the marriage of their daughters in exchange for a bridewealth of livestock.
Level of education: Plan International reports that Kenyan girls who drop out of school for any reason are more likely to end up married. Some parents reportedly withdraw girls from school and marry them off as soon as they menstruate.
Harmful traditional practices: Within the Samburu community, beading is a harmful traditional practice whereby a close family relative will approach a girl’s parents with red Samburu beads and place the necklace around the girl’s neck. This signifies a temporary engagement of the relative and the girl, and the relative can then have sex with her. Some girls are “beaded” as young as 6 years old and it is estimated that three in four girls in the 8-12 age group are beaded. Beading is recognized as a form of child rape under CEDAW.
Female Genital Mutilation and Cutting (FGM/C): While the national prevalence of FGM/C is 21%, in some communities it is near-universal. For the Kuria, Maasai, Rendille and Turkana people FGM/C is seen as a sign of readiness for marriage and generally occurs between the ages of 9 and 17. Girls who have undergone FGM attract a higher bride price compared to those who don’t.
Adolescent pregnancy: Child marriage is seen as a safeguard against immoral behavior and the ultimate protection from male sexual attention. A 2012 Plan study shows that parents in Kilifi and Kwale married off pregnant daughters to protect their family status and name, and to receive both dowry and a “penalty” payment from the man responsible for the pregnancy. Children are respected more when their mother is married and become ng’ide awi (children of the home) rather than ng’ide akeor (children of the field). Among Kuria communities, young pregnant girls are sometimes married off to older women who cannot bear sons, in a tradition known as Nyumba boke.
Poor law enforcement: While the Children’s Act prohibits child marriage, authorities do not see it as their job to prevent it. Birth and marriage registration are rarely produced or verified at the point of marriage. Cases of child marriage taken to court for prosecution are delayed or not completed because of corruption. Community and religious leaders also resist the enforcement of the law.
Escape: Some girls enter marriages to escape strict and controlling parents, orphanhood and negligence from carers.
Together, we must elevate the social value of the girl child in all families, communities and countries. It is time for us to stand with and for girls, be accountable to them and invest in a future that affirms their agency, leadership and potential.
Our comprehensive rights-based strategy delivers four pillars of opportunity, each a proven intervention to ending poverty. Together, the pillars unite and ignite the power of community in delivering human rights for all.
food and shelter
menstrual hygiene management
community-based human rights training.
Together with our donors and partners, we effectively deliver on key United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in the fight to end poverty.