“I think marrying off a child to an old man is not about tradition, religion, culture but purely sexual superiority and power over” Jasmine
Jasmine comes from the Mijikenda community in Kenya residing in the Coastal region. She is a beautiful young girl, who is passionate about education. She is attending a local primary school which is a few meters from her home. She is diligent, kind and playful like many children in our society. The community members give her praises as she is obedient to her parents and she takes care of her siblings. She is only 13 years and about to sit for her Kenya National Examination of Primary Education. Just before she sat for her exams her father had visitors who he entertained in their home. She had just started her menstruation less than two months ago and her mother explained to her in detailed that she has now become a ‘grown woman’ who is able to bring forth life. Confused and totally lost she just listened to her mother and brushed it off. Since her exams were around the corner she concentrated in her studies as she was eager to make sure she passed with good grades so as to transition to secondary school.
She was busy reading for her final exams and her family was busy negotiating her dowry and making all arrangements for her “marriage”. As naive as she was, she could not understand what was going on at home hence minded her own business. In November of 1998 she sat for her final exams and shockingly to her, when she arrived back home she was married off. “I cried and people did not mind my cries my aunties told me; now you are a woman please take care of your family and build you home” says Jasmine.
Early Child Marriages – Is it Culture? Religion? Sexual Superiority?
Listening to Jasmine our house help (then) telling me the story of her life, I was so touched and baffled by how her relatives and family members behaved. Jasmine was more than a house help to me, she was like a sister, I loved her so much and we always used to have our girlish talk. It was particularly painful for her when she spoke about her childhood experiences. She was forcefully married off as a child and ended up running away with her 1 year old child. I applauded her for that and all who helped her escape claws of sexual slavery. In one of our conversations, I asked her why do you think young girls are married off to old men, is it culture or religion or what exactly? She bitterly told me that it is all about sexual superiority, sexual pleasure and power over women. I actually did not understand what she meant by then, but now I agree with her totally. Child, Early and Forced marriages are about sexual superiority (patriarchy).
When a young girl is married off, she does not have any say over her body; when to have sex, when to have a child and how many children to have. She is inferior in such kind of a relationship, after all she is only a child with no experience on family matters. “The man always feels that they have conquered and their sexual needs will always be satisfied” Jasmine explains. Child, early and forced marriages undermines the most important aspects of one’s life and their sexual and reproductive rights. Girls are robbed of their rights to choose and make decisions of their own lives and bodies.
Girls who are married off young do not have access to reproductive health information, knowledge and services. Since many of them drop out of school as a result of child marriage, they do not have reliable sources of information on sexual and reproductive health and rights in the time they need it the most. They face difficulties in accessing reproductive health services such as safe and legal abortion as well as contraceptives. The lack of access is both at the facility level as well as from their home as their “partners” will not allow them to get these important services especially contraceptives. Men in such relationship feel powerful when they are asked for any information and most of the time they are not willing to share. So as a young girl you just suffer alone with nowhere to go.
Child brides are at risk of getting HIV and AIDS as they are not able to negotiate for safe sex. Basic information on HIV is usually taught in schools and they miss out on that since they have dropped out of school to be married off. Girls, adolescents and young women often have little and in most cases no decision-making ability within their sexual-partnership, leaving them unable to negotiate the terms of sex (including contraceptive use) or refuse it altogether.
Finally, a child bride is at risk of experiencing gender-based violence. Imagine refusing to do your “wifely” duties in this kind of a union. You will be beaten thoroughly and forced to do them while crying or even nose bleeding. “Why I actually ran away was because he used to force himself on me everyday even when I was due to give birth, if I cry of pain he would beat me up thoroughly and leave me for the dead” Jasmine tells me. Early child marriage is pushing girls into the grave early – at 12years she becomes a mother, at 24 years she is a grandmother and at 35 years she is likely to be an ancestor in a community like the Mijikenda.
Jasmine had vowed to take good care of her child. She was strong-willed and determined to push through. Her efforts were cut short when she contracted HIV and AIDS and lost her will to live. She lost her life at a young age – she could have survived and lived longer if only she was allowed to continue with her education, if only she was allowed to make her own decisions, if only she had access to information, knowledge and services on sexual reproductive health and rights.
Jasmine’s case in not an isolated one, every year, about 14 million adolescent and teenage girls are married, almost always forced into the arrangement by their parents. In developing countries, one in three girls is married by age 18; and one in nine by age 15. There are 41 countries world-wide with a child marriage prevalence rate of 30% or more, and of these 41 countries, 30 are from Africa. We need to join hands, work together and save these girls.
Day of the African Child
On 16th June 2015, as we celebrated the Day of the African Child whose theme was dubbed “25 Years after the Adoption of the African Children’s Charter: Accelerating our Collective Efforts to End Child Marriage in Africa” I reminisced on Jasmine’s life and couldnt but join many others in calling out to member states to enhance their efforts to end child marriages. Let’s take a moment to remember all girls who have lost their lives due to child marriages. Let’s remember girls like Jasmine, who died due to effects of child marriages, today I write this in her memory. She could be my age mate now but she is no more. I totally agree with her that child, early and forced marriages are really not about, culture, religion or traditions – it is purely sexual gratification, superiority and patriarchy. In the coming days and months and years, may we take time to remember girls like Jasmine who really challenged the norm and culture. Even though after her heroic acts nobody stood by her, she felt safe staying with us for three years. With her child all grown up, Jasmine is now in heaven looking down upon us to save girls from early, child and forced marriages. Let us not let her down, lets fight to end .
In loving memory of Jasmine Mohammed*, (not her real name). It was great knowing you and spending three years with you. I celebrate you Heroine.
With Lots of Love,
Esther Kimani is a member of FEMNET,
you can follow her on twitter @KelsieKim