Jennifer is a child, not a bride. Thanks to you.
Can you imagine being 11 years old and finding out your father planned to give you as a bride? That is the disturbing reality Jennifer faced last April when three older, unfamiliar men arrived at her family’s home.
“I was so shocked to learn I was getting married,” Jennifer remembers. “I kept thinking about my father...I had not wronged him in any way. Why did he want to give me away?”
Jennifer was born into a small Maasai village in the vast, open landscape of the Shompole region of Kenya. Here you are met by herds of cows and goats grazing on brown, scrubby brush surrounding a series of family huts they call manyattas made of wood and mud, capped with grass roofs.
On that day she had sensed something was not right at home. After the men arrived, her mother insisted that she finish her chores early and go to do her beadwork with her cousin. The girls sat under the single tall tree that provides the village with shade from the relentless African sun perfecting their craft of weaving traditional beaded bands (manila) that provide income for the family. The strange morning had her lost in thought, troubled once again about not attending school with her siblings.
“Every one of my siblings went to school except me,” she shared. “I used to feel bad about this, but whenever I asked my mother about it, she would say that she was finding a school for me, so I had hope. I never brought this up with my father as I was a bit scared of him.”
Jennifer’s mother, Meleso, fully understood her husband’s plans when the men arrived. You see, she had been forced to marry a man 60 years her senior when she was just a girl. A year later, she had her first child, at approximately age 11—the same age as her Jennifer. Bound by the absence of equality and denied education, Meleso would stop at nothing to ensure Jennifer did not endure the same fate.
“I decided that my children will not go through the same,” Meleso says. “I made a decision that my children will not walk the same path. Initially, I thought my husband would support our children in their education but when Jennifer, my youngest daughter, reached school-going age, my husband went quiet. I tried to fight but he was adamant.”
Meleso knew she must act quickly to save her daughter. Without community support, her husband’s knowledge, financial resources or modern communications, Meleso secretly made her way to a neighboring village to enlist the help of its chief. Together they contacted a Child Officer with connections to Kenya Works and secured placement for Jennifer at our rescue center, Miale ya Tumaini. With escape plans made, Jennifer and Meleso fled immediately.
When they arrived at Miale, the staff jumped into action to take her through a medical exam, counseling and an assessment to determine her needs. Through that discovery, staff learned that Meleso’s devotion not only saved her daughter from child marriage, but also from female genital mutilation (FGM), a dangerous and harmful female circumcision ritual that often precedes marriage.
“We admitted a very traumatized girl into the center,” says Diana Wambui, executive director at Miale ya Tumaini, who helped Jennifer through this transition. “She was so frightened that when spoken to she would recoil and almost hide under the table—quite literally. Our hearts broke at her experience of having to separate from her family, but we knew we could offer her safety and help her reconnect with them safely over time.”
Jennifer’s story is a triumph, thanks to the support of Kenya Works donors. In Kenya, 23 percent of girls under 18 are married and 21 percent have suffered FGM. These human rights abuses are violations of Kenyan law, but resources and enforcement are limited and particularly challenging in remote tribal communities where traditions hold stronger sway than laws. Many communities are willing to modify traditions to respect girls’ rights when training and facilitation with village leaders are provided.
This summer, Jennifer reunited with her family with the support of our social work team. Through outreach and workshops, Kenya Works' training is helping her father and the village elders recognize that girls are not brides and that it is worthwhile to educate a girl. Her community welcomed her with open arms, excited to learn from this empowered girl. Her father shed tears of joy at seeing his daughter again and views her in a new light.
After a month at home, Jennifer was excited to return to Miale ya Tumaini to continue individual instruction in preparation for full-time enrollment when school starts in January. She is hungry to learn and now has the support and encouragement—both at home and through Miale—to pursue her dreams and live a full life. Jennifer has blossomed into a sociable child. She is making new friends, dancing, and teaching other children and the staff Maasai songs and beading traditions. And, more than anything, Jennifer has gained unbridled confidence.
“I don’t know what my future will be like, but when I picture it the first thing I see is myself in school,” she says. “I know I have a chance now thanks to Kenya Works, Miale and my mom.”