How am I expected to be a wife to someone my father’s age?

2 August 2017
Faith Kiraison ran away from her home at the age of eleven when she realised that for economic reasons, and against her will, she was to be forced to undergo female genital mutilation before being handed over in marriage to a much older man. © UNFPA Kenya/Douglas Waudo

NAIKARRA, Narok County, Kenya – “I woke up one morning, and my father told me that we were poor and needed money,” says Faith Kiraison, 13, from Naikarra.

She was confused about why her father was telling her about the family’s financial hardships – until he explained that he had agreed for a village elder to marry her. In fact, they had already agreed on the bride price.

Then her situation became even more dire. Before she could be married off, she was to be circumcized. It was at that moment that she decided to run away from home - forever. She was just 11 years old.

I woke up one morning, and my father told me that we were poor and needed money.

Bewildered and scared, Faith – the eldest in a family of three siblings – began to hatch an escape plan. Two days later, she sneaked from home at dawn while her family was asleep. She walked for more than 20 kilometres to the only place she had heard about from her friends where she might be able to get help – Naikarra Primary School.

Tired, hungry and emotionally drained, she entered the school principal’s office, fell on the floor and burst into tears, says Edith Komoni Kipteng, a teacher at the school.

“We were not surprised, as a school. Over the years we have witnessed this scenario of girls running away from their homes to avoid female genital mutilation (FGM) and early marriage by seeking refuge at the school play out countless times,” says Ms. Kipteng.

Though Ms. Kipteng has seen hundreds of girls running to the school for help, Faith’s case was of particular interest to her.

She looked utterly malnourished and scared. The desperation and hopelessness in her eyes and voice spoke volumes.

“She looked utterly malnourished and scared. Her feet were swollen due to the long walk. The desperation and hopelessness in her eyes and voice spoke volumes,” she says. “To me, her case was personal, for the simple fact that here was an eleven-year-old girl who had never stepped into a classroom and wanted desperately to make something out of her life. The school was her last (source of) hope.”

Despite being stretched to capacity in terms of resources and facilities, the school agreed to take her in.

“Over the past week we have turned away a number of girls who had run away from home,” Ms. Kipteng says. “It’s the toughest thing I have had to deal with. But what can we do? The reality is the school can only do so much.”

Faith has now been integrated into the school – she has been allowed to study and live there. However, when she left home she took very little with her. “The only clothes I have are the ones I am wearing, which I collected from the trash,” she says. “I don’t have a bed or mattress, so each night some of the girls in the dormitory allow me to share a bed with them."

It’s tough for me, especially since I have not seen my parents and siblings for two years now. But this is much better than being married to someone my father’s age.

In many ways, the move has been hard for her. “It’s tough for me, especially since I have not seen my parents and siblings for two years now. But trust me, this is much better than being married to someone my father’s age,” she says, trying to smile.

Faith’s best friends at the school are Sylvia and Vivian, both of whom have also run away from home to avoid FGM and early marriage. Out of 500 pupils, more than 100 girls are currently staying in the school dormitory.  

Ms. Kipteng is full of admiration for these girls. “It’s such a bold and courageous undertaking for a girl to decide to leave her family behind. Essentially, for most, it means being completely cut off from their loved ones and the only place they ever knew as home.”

For most of these girls, returning home would mean facing retribution from the family they have publicly 'disgraced' by running away - potentially, even death. And their fate as child brides would almost certainly still await them. Girls pressed into FGM and then married off often become pregnant while still adolescents, increasing their risk of complications in pregnancy or childbirth. Complications of this kind are a leading cause of death among older adolescents in developing countries.

If I ever return home, I am absolutely sure I will be forced to go through FGM, and after that (be) married off.

Consequently, the school has made arrangements for the girls to stay at the school during school holidays, to protect them from FGM and being married off when they return home. The school dormitories are supported by World Vision Kenya, a partner working with UNFPA in Kenya to promote the abandonment of FGM and child marriage.  

Here, Faith considers her future. “If I ever return home, I am absolutely sure I will be forced to go through FGM, and after that (be) married off,” she says.

High percentage of girls undergo FGM and child marriage in Kenya

Faith’s story is a reflection of the lives of many girls in different parts of Kenya. About 11 per cent of girls have undergone FGM and 23 per cent of girls are married before their 18th birthday, according to the Kenya Demographic Health Survey report (KDHS 2014). About 1 in every 5 teenage girls between the ages of 15 to 19 years has begun child bearing.

FGM and child marriage is a toxic product of poverty and gender inequality. Girls who undergo FGM and end up in child marriages tend to be less educated and are more likely to live in rural areas.  

One of the biggest challenges is that many girls in rural areas are perceived by their families as either an economic burden or valued as ‘capital’ for their exchange value in terms of goods, money and livestock. A combination of cultural, traditional and religious arguments is often used to justify these economic transactions.

Completing secondary schooling could add billions to economy

It is estimated that if girls complete secondary school, in Kenya this would add about $27 billion to the economy over their lifetimes.

UNFPA promotes programmes, legislation and policies designed to end FGM and child marriage.

The Fund supports evidence-based, girl-centred investments that empower girls with the information, skills and services they need to be healthy, educated and safe, helping them make a successful transition to adulthood.

UNFPA also works to support the needs of married girls, particularly with family planning and ensuring maternal health, including safe deliveries.

Under the UNFPA-UNICEF Joint Programme, national and county governments and organizations such as World Vision Kenya and the Federation of Women Lawyers Kenya (FIDA Kenya) promote and protect the human rights of girls. This includes assisting with the development of policies, programmes and legislation to address and curtail the practice of FGM, including child marriage.  

UNFPA is also supporting World Vision Kenya to facilitate community discussions that also engage men and boys on ending FGM and other harmful cultural practices such as child marriage for target groups such as elders and morans (young men or warriors of the Kenyan Maasai ethnic group).

UNFPA empowers girls to know and exercise their human rights, including their right to choose, as adults, whom and when to marry. This is because ultimately, girls should be at school studying – not learning how to be wives and mothers.

– Douglas Waudo