What you need to know:
- Data from the National Council for Population and Development estimate that one in every 25 adolescent girls (aged 15-19 years) in Kenya, got pregnant or recently gave birth over the long recess.
- According to national hotline 1195, girls are no longer safe at homes ; identifying that cases of incest and defilement are on the rise; with fathers, uncles, step-fathers, cousins, grandfathers and brothers among the top offenders.
For three years, Fatuma* was subjected to a dreadful ordeal.
She was sexually abused by a man she called a father; not once or twice, but many times. He would sneak into her room every midnight in the name of fetching drinking water and force himself into her. At 13 years, Fatuma had already lost her virginity.
Her face contorted in pain, she is now six months pregnant, carrying her father’s child, an act considered evil in African cultures.
Fatuma’s biological father died when she was in Grade Two, at the age of seven. The only man she now knew and identified as a father was the inheritor of her mother as a wife. He inherited her mother, in line with the Luo culture and traditions, three years later.
Fatuma spoke to Healthy Nation at their home in Rangwe, Homa Bay County, recounting how her step-father robbed her of joy in her life, her pride as a young woman and made her his ‘third wife’. She endured this from when she was just 13 years until 16 years.
It all began when Fatuma was in Class Eight as her father in his drunken stupor staggered home and found her washing the dishes.
He stood behind her and took her a photo. In the evening while taking their meal, the man sat next to Fatuma and showed her the photo, whispering in her ears that she had grown to be a beautiful girl.
“At this point, I did not consider his words offensive. I took it as fatherly love and that he was just appreciating me. At no point did it occur to me that my father was having sexual thoughts towards me,” she says.
When Fatuma was about to sit her final examination, the father insisted that he was the one to escort her for her early morning lessons in school, which was three kilometres from their home.
Initially, it was her mother who would escort her and pick her up later after the evening studies since most of the time the man would be on a drinking spree.
However, to advance his moves towards Fatuma, he instructed the wife that he would be the one taking her to school and picking her late in the evening. “My father changed, he would come home early and even my mother was happy since previously they often quarrelled about his drinking habit,” says Fatuma.
“Fatuma, your father really loves you, ensure you pass your examination since he has promised to take you to a good school if you pass,” my mother told me one time.”
Not once, not twice but repeatedly, the father would embrace her, hug her and even kiss her on the forehead. “This was new to me but I was not worried given what my mother told me. I knew he was just trying to show love to me.”
“In the process, he promised that if I avoided boys and concentrated on my studies, I would be his favourite child and he would pay my school fees until I was done with my schooling.”
One day on their way to school, the father started touching her inappropriately. She tried to resist but she was warned to cooperate lest he stopped paying her school fees.
That evening, he went to pick Fatuma at 7pm. “This is the day my father slept with me for the first time in a sugarcane plantation. He told me it was our sordid little secret and that if I told anyone, he would stop paying my school fees and kill me, so I just kept quiet about it.”
On reaching home, she did as she was instructed - she kept quiet. The father gave her Sh100 and told her to buy a sanitary towel as she was bleeding. Her virginity had forcefully been broken.
Noticing that she kept it a secret, he repeatedly slept with Fatuma every morning to school and every evening from school.
She kept the shocking abuse hidden for 36 months “for fear of hurting her mother” until she got pregnant and could not hide it anymore.
The neighbours in the know, who had been seeing the two together, whispered that the man was responsible. But of course no one dared to say this loudly.
“When my mother asked who was responsible, I revealed it was my father. He denied and even threatened to kill me. He stopped paying my school fees and left our family for another family,” she narrates.
Heavily pregnant, she attends her classes with her colleagues. She can’t stand the embarrassment that comes with it, but because her mother insists that she has to go to school, she has no option. At some point she may drop out and take care of her young one while the rest of her peers continue with their education.
“I wish my father could be arrested so that he does not do this to other young girls. If only I sensed danger and informed my mother, I would not be pregnant by now. Many other girls could suffer the same since he has gone to another village to inherit another woman,” says Fatuma.
Fatuma’s mother did not report the case to the authorities. She says it is an embarrassment to the family and that the matter will be solved at the family level. She says she forgave the man and moved on.
Fatuma is just a representation of the cases that are out in the public. But they tell a disturbing tale of a Kenyan society seemingly silently gripped in the monstrous crime of fathers turning their daughters to wives.
Just a few kilometres from Fatuma’s home, one Millicent Akinyi*, a Form Four student, has a four-year-old daughter, a child she bore when she was impregnated by her step-father, a wife inheritor.
She was sexually molested for close to eight years. It started when she was in Class Four till when she joined Form One. She conceived immediately after joining secondary school. After one year of staying at home, she went back to school. She is sitting her final exam this year.
Unfortunately, her mother knew this was happening, but she had feared to report to the police. She also knew her husband had fathered children with other young girls in other families but she feared losing him.
“Even though my mother forgave my father, I am still hoping that one day he will be arrested because even when I was being molested, I told my mother but she ignored and instructed me not to tell anyone,” she says. “My mum said: This matter should not be told to anyone. Your father is the one who pays your school fees, I do not have any money to educate you. Should he be arrested, it is an embarrassment to the family and again, he can even harm you’, this silenced me,” says Millicent.
The father has since moved to another family where he plays the role of an inheritor. The cycle continues.
Data from the National Council for Population and Development estimate that one in every 25 adolescent girls (aged 15-19 years) in Kenya, got pregnant or recently gave birth over the long recess.
While there were several reasons attributed to the surge, many quarters were alarmed that some pregnancies were from fathers, uncles and step-fathers the girls trusted as protectors.
According to national hotline 1195, girls are no longer safe at homes ; identifying that cases of incest and defilement are on the rise; with fathers, uncles, step-fathers, cousins, grandfathers and brothers among the top offenders.
Incest is the crime of having sexual intercourse with a parent, child, sibling, or grandchild —people who are closely related. Despite the vice being illegal in Kenya, it is on the rise and thrives under a culture of silence, stigma and fear.
Whereas defilement is the act of corrupting the purity or perfection of girls below the age of 18, it is causing a significant negative outcome in terms of poor academic performance, low self-esteem, depression and poor social relationships.
In Kenya’s history, 2018 recorded the highest number of teenage pregnancies at 427,135. By September last year, 23,117 girls between the ages 10 and 19 were pregnant.
This is even as the same age group recorded 5,492 HIV new infections and 1,473 HIV-related deaths between January and October 2021, from HIV, according to National Aids Control Council data.
“Girls in Kenya are actually experiencing triple threats of sexual abuse, teenage pregnancy and HIV infection . We must come together in a movement and end teenage pregnancy,” National Aids Control Council CEO Ruth Masha said.
The National Aids Control Council in collaboration with the national government has since issued guidelines on how to end the triple threat among girls, calling upon Kenyans to avoid cultural practices that promote the vices.
Many of the cases of defilement or sexual abuse go unreported for fear of social stigma or embarrassment since many of the perpetrators are often family members or relatives.
Traditionally, wife inheritance is seen as a way of continuing a family’s lineage, especially if the widow is of child-bearing age. However, the practice has become a big impediment to the lives of young girls ; denying them the rights to grow.
It is believed that it is only after a widow has been cleansed that she is deemed to have been inherited. And the cleansing involves having unprotected sex with the inheritor. The ritual ‘cleanses’ the widow and leaves her free to go about her duties without the restrictions associated with widowhood.
Paradoxically, while the inheritor is supposed to take care of the widow, the opposite is often true. She gives him good food, provides for his needs, and generally pampers him to keep him close.
And at times the inheritors are infected with HIV virus. This is one of the vices that has hindered the HIV/Aids control, prevention and management. Many families, more so in the Nyanza and Western Kenya regions, still cherish widow inheritance even though it is taking a major toll on communities.
Poverty is one of the contributing factors to widow inheritance. Most women villages succumb to the tradition because they do not have anyone to provide for them, not knowing that the inheritors also expect to be provided for.
In fact, some men in Aboke village, Homa Bay County, have formed a widow inheritance group of sorts. Whenever a woman loses her husband, they camp at the home and declare their interest. They do this every Friday.
A man can inherit as many as 10 women with families. He visits the families once in a while and plays his husband and fatherly roles and moves to the other family.
Ms Ruth Oywa, the gender programme officer with the International Rescue Committee, says: “Sexual intercourse is believed to be a cleansing mechanism for a woman whose husband has died, those who perpetrate this sexual violence get away with the offence, encouraging impunity.” In 1993, the government noted that widow inheritance was a key contributor to the high rate of HIV/Aids spread in Western Kenya.
And now Homa Bay County in a bid to do away with the tradition has identified the vice as one of the causes of high rate of defilement and incest in the region.
In a study titled Widow Inheritance and HIV Prevalence in Bondo District in 2016, researcher Kawango Agot said the Luo, Luhya, Teso and Miji Kenda in Kenya had perfected wife inheritance, leading to increased cases of HIV/Aids, compared with other African countries.
Even when widows publicly declared their HIV-positive status, they were still inherited.
Despite the apparent risk of HIV infection associated with the practice and fathers taking advantage of their step-daughters, many are reluctant to stop it.
Meanwhile, writing in The Washington Post, Stephen Buckley, former dean at the Poynter Institute of Media studies in Florida, US, decried the deceptive nature of the practice, which always works to a man’s advantage.
“Men, often seeking to cheat widows out of land, have continued to inherit them. Widows, shackled by poverty, have continued to rely on inheritors to take care of them.”
Regarding the spread of HIV-Aids through the practice, Buckley wrote: “An inheritor has his own family, he infects his first wife and the widows he has inherited. Then he dies and men inherit the women he leaves behind. Those men die and then their widows are inherited, hence the increasing number of new HIV infections.” Ms Grace Ateno Osuga, an elder in Orembe Village, says widow inheritance is one of the traditional practices that have survived the test of time despite the drastic changes in society, which have revolutionised the way people relate within the community.
“This is one of the difficult battles to win. We have tried discouraging it but few seem to understand its effects more so at this time that the fathers are taking advantage of their daughters. Previously we were against it because of the fact that it is one of the major spreaders of HIV/Aids. It seems some people are genetically wired to it,” says Ms Osuga.
Mr Madoh Onyango, Nyanza coordinator for Man Against Aids, an NGO, says widow inheritance is rampant in western Kenya, blaming continuation of the practice on poverty. He says if widows could find some income-generating activities, the practice would end naturally.