Stories of Change

Empowering girls to speak out against retrogressive cultural practices

“While going through my mother’s phone, my attention was drawn to her WhatsApp messages after seeing my picture. To my surprise, the discussion was about marrying me off to my cousin,” narrates 16-year-old Ummulkheiyr Mohammed, currently in her second year of high school in Bobasi Sub County in Kisii County.

Ummulkheiyr is a brilliant, vibrant and well-mannered girl whose dreams of a bright future were on the verge of slipping out of her grasp because of the retrogressive cultural practice of child marriage in her community. Apparently, her parents had betrothed her since an early age to a relative without her knowledge. She, however, mastered the courage to tell her story.

“I found out that the plans they had were to take me to the United States of America, where the marriage would take place. This bothered me so much,” she narrates. Ummulkheiyr opened up to her close friends about the issue, some advised her to run away from home whereas others advised her to report the matter. Another group of friends, however, advised her to go for the marriage as it was their culture. She was torn and at some point contemplated committing suicide.

A timely intervention

While going through these tough moments in her life, Ummulkheiyr was lucky to be among 45 students from schools in Bobasi Sub County selected to undergo a mentorship training as part of the ERIKS Jiimarishe project that is being implemented by I Choose Life – Africa (ICL) and funded by ERIKS Development Partner. The goal of the project is to improve the Sexual Reproductive Health (SRH) outcomes and address the underlying determinants of HIV infection among adolescents.

It is just on the second day of mentorship training that she got the courage to speak out and plead for help. ICL project staff thereafter took up her issue and brought it to the attention of her guidance and counseling teacher Mrs. Ondieki who in turn engaged the girl’s mother with a view of resolving the matter through enlightening her on the value of letting her child complete her education, as well as the repercussions of failing to do so. Having spent a big part of their lives as refugees at Kakuma Refugee camp before relocating to Kenya’s Capital Nairobi, her parents were illiterate and did not believe a girl should be educated. However, the school administration succeeded in persuading them to let their daughter complete her high school education and not to force her into marriage. ICL project staff have since been making regular follow up with Ummulkheiyr as well as with the school and so far her parents are keeping their word.

“I really love this school and I want to continue my education and be able to achieve my dreams,” she says. “I want to thank you very much from the bottom of my heart, I am feeling secure now. The choice I was left with was to commit suicide instead of going against my parents but it is over because my parents talked to me and they said it is over. Thank you (ICL) and Mrs. Ondieki very much,” she concludes. Ummulkheiyr, is one life saved, one girl who will finish her basic education, one girl who beat the odds and went against her culture, and an inspiration with a story to tell and be told. However, plenty of action is still needed to save girls in similar situations.

Although early marriages occur to both boys and girls under the age of 18, girls are more susceptible to the practice. This is not only a basic human rights violation, but it also has detrimental effects on the development of girls exposed to the practice. While many drop out of school to become wives and mothers at an early age, others develop pregnancy-related complications and even die at childbirth. The majority end up living under the mercy of their husbands and are usually subjected to domestic violence and with no or little education their chances of gaining any meaningful employment diminish and their families live in unending cycles of poverty.

Despite concerted efforts by different stakeholders to end the practice globally, early marriages are common, especially in Africa. According to the Kenya Population Situation Analysis Report 2013, in every 100 girls in Kenya 26 are married before they attain the age of 18. Despite the Marriage Act 2014 and Children’s Act 2001 that outlaws marriage for underage children in the country, the Government has not been able to completely rein in the practice with many of the cases going unreported. I Choose Life – Africa calls you to partner with us in mainstreaming a rights-based child protection approach amongst duty bearers so as to allow our children just like Ummulkheiyr, to fully enjoy their rights to be children.