Wanjala Wafula is the founder and CEO of the Coexist Initiative, a Kenyan community-based organisation that works alongside boys and men to eliminate all forms of gender-based violence. Coexist was awarded the African Achievers Awards 2012, celebrating the successes of engaging men and boys as a means to empower young girls.
Here, Wanjala speaks of the work he does with community elders to raise awareness of the harmful consequences of child marriage.
What about girls’ rights?
The prevalence of child marriage in Kenya saddens me. We have collectively failed to realise the rights of many girls to a life of their choosing. In the past two years, 40% of girls in Kenya were married before their eighteenth birthday; 61% in the Kajiado County alone. At this rate, Kenya will see 35,000 more girls married off within the next year. That’s 35,000 girls who will suffer violations of their right to health, education and non-discrimination.
The Children’s Act, passed in 2001, prohibited the marriage of anyone under 18, and even stated that “no person shall subject a child to early marriage or other traditional practices that are likely to negatively affect the child’s life, health, social welfare, or dignity”. The problem is not the law, but rather the lack of political will to enforce it.
We have no adequate structures to monitor and prosecute child marriage cases, no services that provide shelter to runaway brides. Children’s rights sit at the very bottom of the government’s list of priorities, if at all, even though rising tensions between ethnic groups have prompted many abductions for marriage and rendered the situation all the more alarming.
I find it tragic that, whenever there is conflict, men use the bodies of women and girls as their battlefield and that it elicits so little outrage from state officials.
Engaging community elders and reaching out to boys
Clearly, the cost of child marriage is too high to be overlooked. So where do we go from here?
I firmly believe that the way forward is to engage the community as a whole. Social transformation will not happen without community engagement. That’s why much of our work at Coexist Initiative is focused on raising awareness of the harmful impact of child marriage through media and entertainment.
We also reach out to local leaders, residents and service providers with key child marriage prevention messages. For example, we’ve been working on “Our Voices Our Cry”, a book that gathers the stories of children who have been sexually exploited, and we are currently pushing for its inclusion into the school curriculum. This way, by bringing the dialogue about child marriage into public consciousness and our schools, we hope to address the discrimination that is at its heart.
For the past year, we have worked closely with the Maasai and Kaya tribal elders to prevent harmful traditional practices like child marriage. I have found that working with spiritual leaders and community elders can dramatically enhance the reach of our message. Because they are seen as the custodians of culture, they impart their traditions and beliefs onto younger generations. Traditional leaders have the authority needed to decrease the acceptance of child marriage, and their voices are particularly important when it comes to reaching out to boys and men.
A key moment in a boy’s life is the time when he learns the “rules of manhood”. This traditionally happens during the male circumcision ceremony, when boys are exposed to highly gendered messages about what it means to be a man. Working with spiritual leaders has proven paramount in opening a new space for dialogue, in teaching boys different lessons about manhood: boys become men by seeing and supporting women as human beings.
By getting men to reject the practices that subordinate women and girls and subject them to violence, we can get to the root of child marriage. The support of community elders’ is a vital part of that process.
The road ahead
That’s why I am so pleased to see social change happening in my own time. After two years working alongside Kaya elders, known for their strict adherence to tradition, not one underage girl was married in their community this year. Not a single one! And in only one year, 10,000 boys and men from the Maasai tribe have rejected female genital mutilation (FGM) and polygamy.
I must say it makes me incredibly optimistic for the future. True enough, FGM isn’t necessarily a precursor to child marriage, but they do share a common root that needs to be addressed: the ingrained idea that women and girls are somehow inferior. In that sense, FGM is a gateway to ending child marriage in Kenya.
11 October this year, the first ever International Day of the Girl Child, gave us a fantastic opportunity to show the changes that have occurred in the community and further raise awareness of the consequences of early and forced marriage. Maasai elders gathered to denounce the practice of child marriage and celebrate the achievements of the transformed generation of Maasai Men. We also had a choir of girls, who used to be married and are now in school, perform songs about our work and successes in the community. If our budget allows it, we would love to produce a video of the celebration and reach even more people.
Most of our successes have come from working on preventing child marriage. It’s a daunting task, but we must continue our work. No girls should ever be forced to marry; not a single one.
The Coexist Initiative has released a new campaign poster to promote men and boys’s mobilisation against gender-based violence, shown below.