“Stop child marriage and continue to study”: empowering the African girl child in Kenya

Ruth Koshal, school girls, and participants at the Day of the African Child celebrations at Migori Primary School. | Photo credit: Girls Not Brides

“Stop child marriage, stop female genital mutilation and continue to study!” This was the message dozens of girls heard at Migori Primary School last week.

On 16 June, I joined these girls, the East Africa Child Rights Network, Girls Not Brides member Nyanza Initiative for Girl’s Education and Empowerment (NIGEE), and the Canadian High Commission, to mark the Day of the African Child.

The plane touched down in Kisumu at 7:30 am, and I embarked on a scenic three-hour journey to Migori Primary School. I saw the dark blue rolling hills of Nandi, and the sparkling view of Lake Victoria. The land is fertile with different hues of green thanks to the vegetation such as maize, Grevillea trees and lots of sugar cane. It must be wonderful being a girl in such a picturesque setting.

I saw children on their way to class or playing in the school compounds, their uniforms announcing loud and clear their school affiliation. Yes, this is where the African girl child should be, in school and learning about maths, literature, science and life skills.

Yes, this is where the African girl child should be, in school and learning about maths, literature, science and life skills.

Though the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child sets the minimum age of marriage at 18, 26% of girls in Kenya are still married before that age. Child marriage prevents them from completing their education, and leads to a downward spiral of disempowerment.

That is why, this year, Kenya celebrated the Day of the African Child under the theme ‘Empowering the African girl child to reach her full potential by delaying marriage and staying in school’. Regionally the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACERWC) had set the theme of Conflict and Crisis in Africa: Protecting all Children’s Rights.

Celebrating girls’ rights at Migori Primary School

The Govenor of Migori County and the High Commissioner of Canada unveiled a colourful mural, one of several across Africa, about the importance of education and the need to stop early marriage.

The Canadian Embassy revealed a mural on child marriage as part of their #WallsCanBloom campaign on Day of the African Child | Photo credit: Girls Not Brides

The Canadian Embassy revealed a mural on child marriage as part of their #WallsCanBloom campaign on Day of the African Child | Photo credit: Girls Not Brides

We played the Girls Not Brides anthem to end child marriage.

It was an incredible moment to witness, as the girls from Migori Primary School heard the song written, composed and sung by girls from Lusaka Girls School in Zambia.

Working together to end child marriage

I spoke to Godfrey Okumu, the Director of NIGEE, about the amazing work their organisation does to protect girls from early pregnancy and child marriage, and support them to continue their education.

We also watched a powerful documentary by the East African Child Rights Network on female genital mutilation (FGM) and its impact on girls, who are then usually married off and forced to say goodbye to their education. The film stressed the role of religious leaders in engaging the local community to protect girls and enable them to complete their education.

I made a few comments on behalf of Girls Not Brides and emphasised the importance of empowering girls, mobilising families and communities, providing social services, as well as establishing and implementing laws and policies.

Events like these are a good example of collaboration and the multi-sectoral approach that we advocate: bringing local and national government, civil society organisations, donors, and traditional and religious leaders together to find solutions to end child marriage.

Ruth Koshal, school girls, and participants at the Day of the African Child celebrations at Migori Primary School | Photo credit: Girls Not Brides

Ruth Koshal, school girls, and participants at the Day of the African Child celebrations at Migori Primary School | Photo credit: Girls Not Brides

Empowering children beyond Day of the African Child

Empowering children in Kenya needs to be part of a long-term vision. In his speech, the Governor emphasised the need to implement the Constitution of Kenya which protects child rights. He also stressed that all children should be empowered to reach Vision 2030, a sentiment echoed by the Deputy High Commissioner of Canada whose message was simple, yet powerful: stop FGM, stop child marriage, and please continue to study.

Civil society in Kenya will continue to lead efforts to end child marriage. The East African Child Rights Network is collaborating with the Anti-FGM Board on the launch of the African Union Campaign to End Child Marriage.

Hopefully, following in the footsteps of Mozambique and Zambia, this will lead to the development and implementation of a national strategy to end child marriage that can deliver results for the girl child in Kenya.