Child marriage is rapidly increasing in the Horn of Africa, driven by poverty, COVID-19 and drought
Providing safe learning to help protect girls from child marriage
Halima*, 18, is the oldest girl in her family. Her parents are Eritrean, but escaped to Garissa in Kenya. They never had a chance to go to school themselves.
In 2020, when she was 16, Halima’s school closed for a short time because of COVID-19. During the school break, her father forced her to marry a 50-year-old man who already had a wife and children.
“I had no idea it was going to happen” Halima explains.” She is distractedly doodling as she remembers her first week of marriage. She has tears in her eyes. “The first seven days of marriage, traditionally, the man and wife stay alone in the house and don’t leave at all… so the first time we left the house, I ran away from my husband….I reported what had happened to Mr. Ali, the school headmaster.”
Mr Ali takes fastidious notes of all the cases of child marriage he deals with at the school. This is not the first forced marriage of a child he had intercepted. There have been seven in his primary school this year alone.
Mr. Ali explains, “I pulled in the Chief, the School Chair and the Parents. I told her parents, she needs to be in school. I told them I’d report them to the authorities if they didn’t let her leave her husband”.
Halima, who is back at home for the time being, says “I’m worried my parents will send me back to my husband when I leave Modika Primary School because we are not divorced.
“He is still trying to get me back. Two months ago he sent some elders from his clan into town to try to bring me back to him, but I refused. He’s furious because he feels he paid for the wedding and gave gifts to my family that they owe him money, and a bride”.
Mr Ali plans to intervene again if necessary. “Halima has her final exams in a few months and after that, I will have to inform the children’s department, because the risk is extremely high that Halima will be returned to her forced marriage. If she passes these exams, which I’m confident she can do, she could qualify for a scholarship to go to secondary school. But this issue with the forced marriage is obviously preying on her mind.
“I visited her father at home with the chief. The chief told the parents, I will jail you. That made them comply.
“Without her courage, this intervention would not have worked. She’s the one who made this happen, she’s the one who wants to learn. She’s extremely brave” he concludes.
Out of the seven girls at this school who are illegally married, Mr Ali has helped four to escape. “In this job, you need to be a community leader, psychologist, negotiator, marriage counsellor, all in one.
“One father was even jailed for six months because his actions forced his daughter to marry early. But we intervened and he’s even now on the PTA (Parent Teacher Association)” muses Mr Ali. “There’s an African proverb that says ‘When you declare war you must be ready to meet your opponent”.
2.5 million children in Kenya are out of school and 90 per cent of out-of-school children are living in arid and semi-arid regions of the country like Garissa. These regions are three times more likely than urban areas to have children dropping out of school.
Through a mix of community engagement, access to safe learning, quality teaching, mentorship and government advocacy, UNICEF in partnership with Educate A Child and the Qatar Fund for Development, is running a programme, ‘Operation Come to School Kenya’ which has enrolled and retained 350,000 students into school in the first four years of operation and it’s now been expanded.
*name changed to protect her identity.
 ‘Expansion of Operation Come to School Kenya’ Educate a Child Funding Proposal