By Jennifer Friedlin
Tuesday, October 28, 2003
For many students, the African Inland Church Girls Primary School is just a regular boarding school. But for some Masai girls, it's a refuge from family plans to marry them off despite Kenyan law.
KAJIADO, Kenya (WOMENSENEWS)--Nice Mulejo was just 9 years old when her father decided to pull her out of school and give her away for marriage. But two days before the wedding, a concerned teacher learned of the preparations and begged Mulejo's father to allow the girl to attend school for one more day. When he reluctantly agreed, the teacher used the extra day to whisk Mulejo off to a government boarding school for girls.
Mulejo, now a shy 11-year-old with a broadsmile, has remained there ever since.
"If they never rescued me, I could have been a mother now or been threatened by the man because he was much older than me," Mulejo says. "Maybe I would have been given difficult work like cooking."
Mulejo is one of dozens of girls from the Masai tribe who have found refuge from forced marriage at the government's African Inland Church Girls Primary School. It might seem like an invasion of family privacy, but because marrying off girls is illegal in Kenya, the government school has the authority to intervene and act on the girls' behalf.
Located on the Kenyan plains 40 miles south of Nairobi, the school is--for about three-quarters of its 550 students--just a regular boarding school. About a quarter of the students, however, are Masai girls who have been rescued from parents' plans to marry them off before the legal age of 18.
Once the rescued girls are in the school, their parents may come to see them, but only under tight supervision; the school remains vigilant against parents who might want to seize the girls for early marriages. A tall, guarded fence helps to keep parents out, and special accommodations exist so that any girl threatened with forced marriage can remain on school premises during holiday breaks.
Founded in 1959 by a group of Christian missionaries, the school serves students from a number of different tribes. But the Masai girls are the school's most vulnerable students. Among Africa's various tribes, the traditionalist Masai, with an economy based on cattle herding, continue to subject their girls to genital mutilation and to marry them at a young age, despite Kenyan laws against both practices.
"The Masai still think that girls should not go to school, that their place is in the home where they can learn from their mothers," said the school's affable headmistress Priscilla Nangurai, who has decorated the school's walls with posters reading, "All girls have a right to quality education."
It's a message that has yet to filter through the patriarchal and polygamist Masai culture. Although some Masai chiefs do try to change tradition and enforce Kenyan laws protecting girls from being married off, the society, in general, puts little stock in its girls. Girls often are not allowed to speak to their fathers unless spoken to. And, while women are responsible for fetching the water, getting the firewood and feeding the family, girls are the last to eat, making them particularly prone to malnutrition and starvation when food is scarce.
Many Masai men and women, who tend to be impoverished and uneducated, continue to support a traditional system that values a girl at five cows and up to 20,000 Kenyan shillings, or $300--the price a family receives for marrying her off.
Nangurai says that since 1986 the school has been doing everything it can to prevent parents from marrying off their young daughters. To do so, the school has a network of women's rights activists and others in the community who keep their eyes open for indications that a family might be preparing for the marriage of a young girl.
Such indications include frantic preparations by the mother of a bride-to-be. In the days before a wedding she will suddenly get very busy preparing "chang'a," a homemade alcohol of fermented maize, making beadwork and buying the blue and red "shukas," or wraps, traditionally worn by the bride.
If any of Nangurai's community "spies" becomes suspicious that a girl already enrolled African Inland Church Girls Primary School is about to be pulled out of school and married off, she will prevent the girl from going home during a holiday break. In addition to the school's dormitories, a special hostel has been built to shelter girls who are at risk for being married off.
While the school's regular dormitories resemble military barracks, administrators designed the hostel to be more spacious and brighter as a consolation for the girls who must remain at the school while their schoolmates are with their families, Nangurai said.
Jedidah Naserian, 14, was brought to the school by her parents when she was 7 years old. Two years later, her father decided to marry her off while she was home from school on a break. Her mother intervened, telling the local Masai chief of her husband's plans. In this case, the sympathetic chief escorted Naserian back to the school where she has remained.
Although her father has only come to visit her once in the five years since she returned to the school, the tradeoff was worth it, says Naserian, who dreams of becoming a doctor.
"I like this school. The teachers are great and I get an education," says Naserian, dressed in the school's mandatory uniform, a green pinafore. "It is my right to go to school."
Today, 85 percent of the school's students go on to secondary school and several have completed university with advanced degrees. And Nangurai says she is even starting to see encouraging changes in people's attitudes toward education for girls.
"In the 22 years that I've been here, it's only in the last three that I started seeing the men bringing their daughters to school," says Nangurai, who suspects that some families have come to realize that an educated daughter with a job can provide far more than cows and $300.
One area of on-going frustration for the school's administrators and teachers is the Masai community's entrenched belief in female genital mutilation. The tradition is still seen as a mandatory rite of passage for Masai girls and a taboo subject to discuss.
"FGM is so deep in the culture; some girls demand it," said Nangurai.
In order to educate the girls about the dangers of genital mutilation, Nangurai brings in medical professionals to show videos and talk about the procedure's potentially life-threatening effects. If the girls decide against it, Nangurai can then petition the government, which opposes genital mutilation, to intervene.
Although putting an end to female genital mutilation will likely take many years, there are indications that on this front, too, things are beginning to change.
After nearly being married off at age 9, Nice Mulejo now plans to stay single until she is ready to choose her mate and to finish her education so that she can become a teacher "in a school like this." As far as getting cut, Mulejo hasn't yet made up her mind, but she knows this much: the choice is hers.
"I'll make my decision when I grow up," Mulejo says.
Jennifer Friedlin is a writer based in New York City who traveled to Kenya to report this story.
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