Girls should be in school – not forced into marriage by powerful men

Education can change girls’ lives: an extra year of education can raise a girl’s future wages by between 10% and 20%. Albert González Farran – Unamid/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Naisiae⁺ is 15 years old. She belongs to Kenya’s Maasai tribe, is the first born in a family of six and her father died in 2012. In 2015, the teenager from Narok County graduated from primary school with slightly below average grades.

Naisiae was awarded a scholarship by a local civil society organisation so that she’d be able to repeat the year at a different school, improve her grades and move on to secondary schooling.

But Oloibon was having none of this. He had decided that Naisiae should be his ninth wife and, because he is the community’s chief priest, he’s allowed to do what he wants. And so Oloibon, who is in his 60s, married the teenager against her and her mother’s will.

Naisiae’s mother was devastated. She had no power to stop Oloibon from marrying her daughter – how dare she stop the chief priest from performing his “duties” in a society that measures a man’s wealth partially by counting his wives?

The girl’s education is finished. Her dream of going on to university and being able to support her family one day is just a mirage. And her story, sadly, is not unusual among Africa’s pastoralist and semi-pastoralist communities.

Girls’ education benefits everyone

African governments and civil society organisations have made huge gains in ensuring that girls go to school and complete their education.

This, of course, has enormous benefits for both individual girls and societies at large. Programmes like the Adolescent Girls Initiative, which evaluates economic outcomes among girls, have proved that education and training empowers girls to venture into non-traditional, non-farm employment. In some cases, their presence has bolstered employment figures outside a country’s farming sector by more than 14%.

Research has also shown that one extra year of education increases a girl’s future wages by between 10% and 20%. And greater investments in girls’ education raises a country’s gross domestic product by close to 0.2% annually.

Sadly, as the story of Naisiae and Oloibon reveals, much remains to be done. In pastoralist communities particularly, girls’ lives are still entangled within a culture whose custodians happen to be men. The traditional cutting of female genitals and early marriage are far more of a priority there than a girl’s education. In Kenya, about one in every five girls is out of school because of forced early marriages that were preceded by genital cutting.

This is not merely a Kenyan nor even just an African problem. Globally, about 60% of girls with no or less education are married by their 18th birthday. That’s compared with 10% of their peers who’ve completed secondary education. It’s estimated that if the trend isn’t arrested now, more than 140 million girls will become child brides by 2020.

What can be done to avoid this statistic becoming a reality?

Time for action

In Naisiae’s case, the civil society organisation in question noticed that she did not meet the cut-off points for admission to a secondary school of her choice, visited her family and persuaded her to repeat Grade 8 at another primary school. It helped her to get a place at an academy in another faraway county near the Kenyan capital.

She went missing the night before she was due to report to her new school.

Nobody knows who colluded with Oloibon in planning this forced marriage. The civil society organisation has tried to track him down, to no avail – at the beginning of the school term in May 2016 he was apparently on “honeymoon” with his child bride at a coastal resort. The authorities don’t want to pursue the case: Oloibon is, after all, a powerful chief priest.

By telling Naisiae’s story, the African Population and Health Research Centre – where I work – and civil society organisations hope to push those who bear a duty into taking action.

In the short term, it’s time for countries’ laws to be applied. Both Kenyan and international law have declared it illegal to marry someone younger than 18. Those who break the law, as Oloibon has done, must be prosecuted.

Another way to start reversing this terrible trend is through education – the education of men, that is. Men in pastoralist and semi-pastoralist communities need to be taught about how important girls’ education is to everyone in a society.

For now, we wait for news of Naisiae. It’s time for her to come home and return to school. She is a child, not some man’s wife.

⁺ Not her real name