James Lokuk patrols Morpus Primary School compound in West Pokot County. It is a cloudy afternoon and a few days to Christmas. All schools are closed. But it is not yet holiday time for the headteacher at the government school that also serves as a rescue centre for girls who have been rescued from forced early marriages and female genital mutilation.
It is a Wednesday afternoon and there are about 10 girls in the school compound. They are all under 18 years of age. Here, Lokuk wears the hat of a
headteacher during school sessions. But during holidays and weekends, he serves as a father and caretaker of the young ones who have escaped harmful cultural practices. “I have to be here throughout; including the school holidays to ensure that all the girls are safe. We cannot have our Christmas holidays elsewhere as some of the girls still face the threat of remarriage,” says the headteacher.
A few steps from him, the young girls are in a group. The teenagers stand quietly in one of the classrooms in Morpus Primary School. It is a few days to Christmas and schools are closed. But to the young girls, this season, and other school holidays find them here. “It is like their home,” Lokuk says. The eight converse in low tones as a team. A closer look on their faces reveals devastation and pain. But their strength is evident when they start to narrate their story.
“To me, this is a prayer answered,” says Chebet* who was rescued from child marriage in 2017. Her journey from Kacheliba area in Pokot North, however, was not an easy one. She recounts the horrendous trek. that landed her in the safe haven that she has since known as home. A second born of eight children arrived at the Morpus Primary School two weeks after leaving the home where she had been married. Chebet forcefully underwent female genital mutilation in May 2017. Immediately after, her parents handed her over for marriage. “A man came home to pick me. I was told he is my husband and I had to follow him home. I was given tight security; heavily guarded. I was unhappy,” recounts a tearful Chebet.
Chebet’s experience reflects the grim picture of 12 million other girls globally who are married every year before the age of 18. Sadly many of them undergo FGM to usher them into the marriage life. Although outlawed, at least 200 million women and girls aged between 15 and 49 have undergone the cut. Progress has been made in the fight against child marriages and other harmful cultural practices. However, UNICEF estimates that more than 150 million additional girls will marry before their 18th birthday by 2030 if action is not taken.
In order to avert such cases, UNFPA Kenya, in partnership with World Vision has been supporting Child Protection Project, an initiative aimed at protecting young girls from early marriages and female genital mutilation in West Pokot. The initiative has seen over 400 girls rescued from the harmful cultural practices since 2003.
According to Lokuk, the youngest girl in the school is aged 12 while the oldest is aged 17. He has been headteacher in the institution since 1998. In 2003, Lokuk observed rampant school drop-out especially by young girls who got married. In 2000, shared his concerns with the school board. The institution was a day school then. It was then that the board agreed to have all the girls from the school start boarding. “We felt this would protect them from the snare of child marriages. There were 48 girls out of a total school population of 101. With the rising numbers of the girls each year, Lokuk says they called on well wishers who provided mattresses blankets and other essential items needed by girls in school.
In order to continue the education of the rescued girls, the school which serves as the only girls rescue centre in the entire West Pokot County has seen the start of a mentorship program for 50 girls from different parts of the county. The girls, all Form Four graduates, are currently pursuing a six-month technical course on bead work, Information Communication Technology (ICT) and catering among other programs.
Milka* a 17-year old girl at the centre recounts how a teacher from a nearby primary school rescued her from forced marriage. “I came to the rescue centre in January 2018 after escaping an arranged marriage at home. I knew I had to undergo the cut before I could be married to the polygamous man. I feared I would die if I underwent the cut,” she narrates.
In order to re-integrate the girls back to normal family life, World Vision’s Gender and Development Program Officer George Ndungu says the organization is already in the process of getting foster homes for all the girls. “Beginning 2020, we are planning to have foster homes for the girls. This way, they will have the experience of a family setting during holidays,” he said. Ndungu reiterated that World Vision plans to train 100 community health volunteers and teachers ahead of the integration process.
John Wafula, humanitarian program specialist at United Nations Population Fund lauded the efforts by different stakeholders in the county to address harmful cultural practices. We’ve held meetings with elders in the country. Through the anti-FGM board, we’ve organised for meetings with the administration to ensure that existing laws and policies are implemented to protect women and girls against harmful practices including child marriages,” said Wafula.