We expect to choose our own husband or wife in Australia. But for many girls living in poverty, the choice is not theirs to make; sometimes, with deadly consequences.
18 May, 2017
“I’d like to ask you for Rochelle’s hand in marriage,” said the young gentleman sitting across the table from my husband and me. There was no expectation that we would say “no”, he was only asking out of respect for us. We knew Rochelle had already chosen to marry Matt. It was her choice to make and she was mature enough to make a good choice.
Throughout Rochelle’s life, we tried to prepare her to become an independent adult; a young lady who could make wise decisions. As she got older, she chose what musical instrument she wanted to play, who her friends would be, her subjects at school, her university program, her career, and who she would spend the rest of her life with.
For many girls living in poverty, these choices are not available. Some never attend school because their parents doubt they will ever contribute to the economic viability of the family. With no education, the girls have only one career prospect: to be a wife and mother.
When parents are struggling to feed their children, it can become a financial and social imperative to ensure their daughters are married early. But this is false economy; locking generation after generation in the grip of poverty.
Through arranged marriages, more than half the girls from the poorest families in the developing world are married as children. These girls are denied their childhood; if they were in school before marriage, they often drop out soon after they are married. They are more likely to suffer domestic violence; more likely to die in childbirth; their children are more likely to die within their first weeks of life. They are also more likely to be unhealthy and to live in poverty throughout their lives. The cycle of poverty rolls on and they are trapped inside.
In Kenya, 23 per cent of girls under the age of 18 are married. “My friends dropped out of school and got married between the ages of 15-17 years. Many of them now have an average of five to six children,” says 22-year-old Jennifer Sekeyian Kisurkat.
Jennifer was among the first graduates from Ewuaso Najile Girls school (otherwise known as Najile Girls), which was built by Compassion on the Najile savanna, 70 kilometres from Nairobi. The school was established to be a place of hope and opportunity for girls. Jennifer enrolled because she was determined to pursue an education and not fall into the trap of early marriage.
Before Najile Girls was built, Jennifer travelled long distances to go to school. Two or three days a week, she was absent from school, taking care of the family’s cattle or doing household chores. As a result, her education suffered. When the new school opened, she was delighted to be able to study closer to home.
As well as providing excellent education for the girls in the community, the school also became a refuge for girls escaping early marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM, which is practiced by many of the Maasai people in the region.)
In the Christian environment of Najile Girls, Jennifer devoted her life to Jesus and sought ways she could be a positive influence in her community.
After graduation, Jennifer saw a need to assist local women in their efforts to establish viable businesses and increase their family income. She enrolled in college to study supply-chain management. Jennifer also volunteered at the POMC Najile Child Development Centre, where she teaches boys and girls to pursue their education. “I want to encourage young girls to say no to early marriage, female genital mutilation and HIV/AIDS,” says Jennifer. She is helping to shape the next generation of Maasai children and break the cycle of poverty in Kenya.
Rochelle, Matt and I are busy preparing for their wedding—booking the venue, ordering dresses, buying decorations, booking contractors, and sending out invitations. My husband and I are coming to the realisation that Rochelle is about to graduate from our care and start a whole new stage of her life. But I am haunted by the thought that, as each day passes, tens of thousands of young girls are being forced into marriage too early and will suffer horrendous consequences throughout their lives.
Compassion is winning the battle against early marriage for so many girls. Please donate to Compassion’s Highly Vulnerable Children’s fund so many more girls have the choice to make wise decisions about who they will spend the rest of their lives with.
Words by Silas Irungu and Vivienne Hughes
Photos by Isaac Ogila, Matthew Smith, and Silas Irungu