The scorching sun on the plains of Kajiado Central is unforgiving to teenage girls who trek for several kilometres across dusty hills and valleys in search of water.
Although they are visibly exhausted, the girls clad in Maasai shuka cannot give up until they get water for their livestock and for domestic use.
This is the situation across the vast Kajiado County where vegetation that the Maasai community depends on to feed their cattle is drying up. Springs and rivers are also running dry, as rainfall becomes more and more unpredictable.
The dry spell has left a number of households with no food. Daniel Saguti, an elder at Oiti village in Kajiado Central, says the impact of climate change has exposed a number of families to desperate situations.
Some are forced to give away their daughters as young as 13 as brides in exchange of cattle.
However, before they are married off, the girls are forced to undergo female genital mutilation (FGM).
“As an elder, I arrest anyone who marries off their girls at an early age. But the girls are still secretly married off to older men in exchange of cattle,” says Saguti.
“Child marriage tends to be high during droughts. It is worrying because these marriages go hand in hand with FGM.”
Fourteen-year-old Stellah was married to a 40-year-old man whose interest was to have her take care of his elderly mother as he moved with his livestock in search of pasture and water.
Before marriage, she was secretly subjected to FGM to avoid falling on the wrong side of the law.
“My husband pleaded with my father for a bride. Immediately I moved in with him, he migrated with the livestock,” Stellah says.
A study by Amref Health Africa titled Intersection between climate change and FGM among Maasai of Kajiado, shows that climate change highly contributes to child marriages.
The study was triggered by low enrolment of girls to Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) colleges in 2019.
Tammary Esho, one of the researchers, said the government was recruiting 1,000 youth to undertake several courses, but only managed to enrol 850, including 100 girls.
“We were interested to know where the girls were only to learn they had been married during the dry spell,” said Dr Esho, who is the head of FGM at Amref Health Africa.
“The common finding was that girls drop out of school for marriage, to herd livestock, fetch water and support their families.”
According to Kajiado County Education Department, enrolment at early childhood education and vocational training institutions was at 56 per cent. According to a 2016 Ministry of Education report, total number of ECDE centres were 795, with an enrolment of 53,058.
The county had a total of 672 primary schools with 167,048 pupils and 147 secondary schools with an enrolment of 29,354.
NO RAINS FOR TWO YEARS
In the current study, researchers call for interventions.
“There is a need to look at women and girls within other programmes like gender, climate change, health and education,” said Esho.
In Kajiado Central, residents say they have not seen any rains for the last two years.
Saguti says his two-acre farm is lying idle despite ploughing it three months ago as he anticipated rainfall.
“Previously, we used to have two planting seasons due to ample rains, but it has not rained for two years. The only option now is irrigation, which is extremely expensive,” says the farmer, whose home is just two kilometres from a stream.
He has previously been cultivating watermelon, maize, beans, tomatoes and vegetables. He needs at least Sh50,000 for irrigation, which he cannot afford.
In a good season, Saguti says, a single acre fetches 20 bags of beans, which he sells locally at over Sh10,000 each.
“Cows are a sign of wealth among the Maasai and when stock reduces, girls are forcefully subjected to the cut in preparation for marriage,” says Grace Salonik, an FGM survivor.
The 26-year-old and a mother of three says a number of families marry off their daughters to buy food, especially during droughts.
“Girls are mostly viewed as a source of wealth, and they are married off to save families from starvation whenever there is famine,” says Salinik.
Salinik says she underwent the cut at a tender age of 10, and bled for 10 hours.
“FGM was a terrible experience and my mother could only pray for the bleeding to stop after herbs and paraffin failed. This is the worst encounter I would wish for any girl,” she says.
Before the cut, she had been trained on the roles of a woman, which entailed washing clothes, cooking, herding livestock, milking and taking care of a man.
“At 10 years, I was too young, and even though I was told to behave like a woman, I was still a child,” she recalls.
Salinik is now an anti-FGM ambassador who trains girls on alternative rites of passage. The girls light candles to symbolise they are ready to stop FGM and embrace education.
Denge Lugayo, Alternative Rites of Passage project manager at Amref Health Africa, says the community is involved during candle lighting and night vigils.
Lugayo says although Amref Health Africa began pushing for alternative rites of passage in Kajiado in 2009, the communities were brought on board in 2017.
In 2009, FGM prevalence was at 98 per cent, but this has dropped to 55 per cent.
Article first published on standardmedia.co.ke