Drought and soaring food prices force more girls into early marriage
UNICEF is supporting the Government of Kenya to protect girls rescued from early marriage and help keep them in school
As drought and soaring food prices force more girls into early marriage, Amira, 12, escapes from marrying a 70-year-old man on her wedding day.
Amira looks young for her twelve years of age and she’s shy, looking only at Jamila Rashid, the local children’s officer, when she speaks. Two months ago, she was rescued from an attempted child marriage, set up by her uncle. He’d secretly arranged for her to marry a septuagenarian in exchange for a small dowry of cows. Amira only found out the plan on the day of her own wedding.
Desperate times have befallen many nomadic pastoralist families in this arid county of Garissa, Northern Kenya, which borders Somalia and is suffering the worst drought in 40 years, on top of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The conflict in Ukraine has led to soaring food prices in East African countries, which are dependent on Ukraine and Russia for 90% of grain imports. In parts of East Africa, the number of children affected by the severe drought has increased by more than 40% in the first two months of the war.
At the sharp end of this butterfly effect are vulnerable children like Amira, who are being forced into child marriage against their will.
Twelve-year-old Amira was told she was visiting Garissa Town during the April school holiday because her brother was getting married.
“I was excited,” she says. "I had a new dress to wear, they were putting henna on my hands. It was going to be a celebration … "
Little did Amira know she was being groomed. The story was a ruse and her uncle had arranged for that day, Amira to be the bride. She was set to marry a man in his seventies. “I know the man, he’s a family friend from the local town. He used to visit our village. He’s wealthy and he has cows,” explains Amira.
Amira’s own family have struggled on a low income since half of her father’s 22 cows died in the drought earlier this year. "We didn’t even have milk to drink when we lost so many cows."
Amira describes the day of her attempted child marriage: "That day I took the bus with one of my relatives and had been told we were going to my brother’s wedding. I was excited. Then there was a phone call ….and I discovered I was the one getting married… I cried. I felt angry and betrayed."
Despite the enormous personal risk, facing the wrath of his male relatives, Amira’s step-brother caught wind of the plan and intercepted her, stopping the wedding from taking place.
“The bus always stops half way for a break and when we stopped at the services at the side of the road, I saw my brother standing there with the police. I had no idea he would be standing there. I was so happy,” she explains.
Jamila Rashid, 29, the Children’s Officer who is taking care of Amira says: “I was very surprised that a brother intercepted an attempted child marriage. Normally the brother would collude with the uncle as money changes hands, but in this case, he saved her.”
Amira is living temporarily in a Children’s Centre, which is run by the Kenyan government and was refurbished by UNICEF, which also provides the centre with supplies such as playground equipment and children’s kits containing basic items like toiletries.
Child Marriage is illegal in Kenya. Jamila is overseeing Amira’s child protection case and the criminal case which is being brought against her uncle. “The crime of arranging a forced marriage carries a hefty prison sentence of up to 30 years,” explains Jamila. “We also know that an institution is not the best place for a child and that she wants to be with her family. But it’s complicated because we can’t send her home, knowing that risk of her being married off by her relatives remains high.”
“At UNICEF we are supporting the government to protect girls rescued from marriage, helping to ensure they can remain in school. We need to change hearts and minds in the community, for people to know there are alternatives to marrying off young girls for a small dowry,” says Zeinab Ahmed, Child Protection lead for UNICEF in Garissa.
Four consecutive failed rains have left 29.1 million people in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia in need of urgent humanitarian assistance in 2022, including more than 1.8 million severely wasted children who require life-saving support. In Kenya, the Government is leading the response to this unprecedented crisis at national and county level, with support from UNICEF and partners.