Child Marriages, Child Protection and Sustainable Development in Kenya: Is Legislation Sufficient?
There is an increasing awareness that strong legislative frameworks do not always translate in their implementation and effectiveness. This seems to be the case in Kenya. In “Child Marriages, Child Protection and Sustainable Development in Kenya: Is Legislation Sufficient?”, Ajwang’ Warria argues that despite substantial national laws as well as international and regional conventions against child marriages, female genital mutilation (FGM) and the prosecution of its perpetuators, the practice is still very much present, partially due to the lack of community involvement and advocacy groups. Indeed, the poor implementation of existing Kenyan laws such as the Children’s Act, the Marriage Act, the Counter-Trafficking in Persons Act and the Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation, they are often overridden by customary laws, especially in rural areas. According to Warria (2019), a community-based and participatory approach is needed to induce positive and sustainable social change. The elimination of child marriages requires grassroots efforts and that include community and traditional leaders as well as reproductive health and advocates. Cross and multicultural programming and efforts can tackle and/or shift deep-rooted social norms, laws, rituals and practices such as female genital mutilation that perpetuate child marriages.
Consider this Guardian podcast I came across, featuring Leah Chebet Psiya and her Pokot Women’s Empowerment Organisation. The women activists undertake rescue missions to vulnerable populations (women and children) during environmental disasters, deadly floods and landslides that devastated her community last year and the country of Kenya as a whole. They are also advocating for women’s rights and campaigning against the traditional practice of female genital mutilation in West Pokot. Leah explains that in her culture, female genital mutilation is an indicator that girls are ready to be married, which often arranged by the family. Therefore, girls are forced to drop out of school and leave home to an early and forced marriage. When the girl gets married, the family of the bride receive cows for the dowry. Female genital mutilation, child marriages and the custom of dowry are interconnected cultural practices that increase the family’s wealth, and this is why it continues to be encouraged from one generation to the next. Other factors like poverty and humanitarian disasters (with cases of floods and famines in Kenya) will influence the likelihood of child marriages due to precarious living and being able to meet basic needs.
When there are female genital mutilation ceremonies, members of Pokot Women’s Empowerment Organisation interrupt them and take the underage girls from to a safe home where the organization provides them with basic necessities and put them through school. Whenever the underage girls are willing to go back to their respective village, Pokot women activists prepare a sit-down with the village chief, the parents, extended family and the community to negotiate and explain them the benefits of girls pursuing their education and potentially being political leaders that would implement policies benefiting their villages. When a consensus has been reached, the Pokot Women’s Empowerment Organisation write down an agreement holding them accountable to support girls’ education. However, at the end of the interview Leah admitted that after 3 months, some communities tend to reinstate the practice of female genital mutilation, this is why funding is need for continuous monthly assessments and check-ups is needed to guarantee the sustainability of the organization’s efforts.
To conclude, grassroots work and advocacy efforts can help identify gaps and inconsistencies in laws and policies in addressing the underlying causes of child marriages and FGM to reduce its high prevalence in Kenya. Warria (2019) affirms it requires multi-level support based on policy reforms as well as collective efforts from local and international players to remedy to issues of lack of rights awareness, culture and traditions, poverty and socialization.