Illegal underage marriages high in rural Kenya, report finds

Despite a law prohibiting child marriages in Kenya the practice is still rampant in rural areas, a report released by Plan International has found.

By Anthony Aisi

Despite a law prohibiting child marriages in Kenya the practice is still rampant in rural areas, a report released by Plan International has found.

The report, released on Thursday (6 December) following research in eight rural areas, found 43% of girls interviewed and 11.6% of boys were married before 18. Both rates are higher than Kenya’s national rate, which stands at 34% for females and 1.4% for males.

Kenya’s new marriage bill outlaws child marriage and imposes stiff penalties to anyone who gets engaged or betrothed to an under 18-year-old. But Plan says many parents in rural Kenya marry off their children, particularly girls, as young as 14 due to the stigma associated with teen pregnancies and children being born out of wedlock. Many children are also married to enable a family to escape the pangs of poverty.

“Deeper analysis revealed that girls are either seen as an economic burden or valued as capital for their exchange value in terms of goods, money and livestock. It was also apparent that a combination of cultural, traditional and religious arguments were used to justify child marriages,” the report finds.

Chief guest, the Honourable Lady Justice Njoki Ndungu, said: “Globally 66 million girls of school going age are not in education. In Kenya, approximately two million girls of school going age are not in school. Only 47.6% of girls are enrolled into secondary schools compared to 52.4% of boys, and the gender gap widens the higher you go up the education ladder. In reality, one in five girls of lower secondary school age is out of school.”

Justice Ndungu pledged to spearhead active participation of the Executive, the Legislature and all other agencies and community structures responsible of protecting children to end child marriage.

In the report Barriers to girls’ education, access and transition, Plan finds that most parents who married off young girls did so to conceal pregnancy or avoid children born out of wedlock.

“Many parents marry off their daughters the moment they discover they are pregnant to protect their family status and name. The fear and stigma attached to premarital sex and bearing children outside marriage and associated family honour were cited as reasons for pushing girls into early marriage,” the report finds.

Plan’s report found most underage girls being married off were marrying significantly older men. Evidence also suggests that girls married before they turn 18 will be less educated and will go on to have more children.

Statistics show that Kilifi has the highest prevalence of child marriage in Kenya at 47.4%, followed by Homa Bay at 38%, Kwale at 37.9%, Bondo at 29.5% and Tharaka at 25.3%.

The report also indicates an increasing number of girls engaging in child labour within the household. The report found many girls are filling in for absentee parents, some of whom are employed elsewhere. This hinders girls from attending school, causing many to eventually drop out.

“Improving access to education for both girls and boys and eliminating gender gaps in education are important ways of ending the practice of child marriage,” says Samuel Musyoki, acting country director for Plan International in Kenya.

He added: “Lobbying and advocating for enforcement of laws [against] sex with under-age children and forced marriage can also be one of the approaches that can be employed to deal with these problems. At a governmental level, individual ministries need to work together to coordinate efforts to tackle the social and economic barriers to girls’ education that cut across multiple sectors.”

An assistant chief from Nkondo location in Tharaka said: “In this village there is a girl who was forced by circumstances to marry a boda-boda [bicycle taxi] man after her father, who was the family’s sole bread winner, died leaving her and her younger siblings with her ailing mother. Despite her good academic performance in school she had to drop out of school at the primary level to nurse her sick mother and take care of her other siblings. When she could not continue attending school regularly due to her added responsibility she opted to marry as she believed that her husband would support her family although she still had the desire to pursue education.”

Under its Because I am a girl campaign Plan is calling for a minimum of nine years schooling for girls and boys to ensure a better transition to the critical stage of secondary education.