Amid struggle and suffering, young girls in Narok County braved the wrath of their fathers and fled from home to seek refuge and education.
And for some, like Naila*, the defiance has paid off.
When the 26-year-old university graduate looks back at the events of that fateful day when, as a 13-year-old, she chose to flee her home, she is glad that she had the courage to do so.
Naila hopes many of her peers who have been married off to men old enough to be their fathers and grandfathers would have been spared this experience and allowed to explore what life had to offer. The second-born in a family of 10 — seven boys and three girls — and first girl in her family to go to university, Naila believes maybe they would have been lucky like her.
Naila, who holds a degree in finance and banking, recalls running away from home in December 2006 when she was almost 13.
At school, she had studied the negative effects of female genital mutilation (FGM), and one of her teachers, who was also a pastor, had taken every opportunity to tell his students to avoid the cut and run away from early marriage.
“Preparations started about two weeks to the D-day. Ordinarily, they shave your hair, goats are slaughtered, traditional brew is prepared, and bracelets are made for the girl.
“Because my brother and I were the only ones mature enough, we automatically knew the preparations were being made for me,” explains Naila.
“My uncle was against it, and he had ensured that his girls stayed away from home to keep them safe, since our grandfather was big on culture. I told him about what was going on, and he said he would make a plan that did not involve him directly, since he feared his brother’s wrath.”
Her uncle looked for a member from a church, and on the night of her rescue, the man picked her up from her uncle’s house. Under a torrent of rain, the duo rode on a bicycle to a centre kilometres away, passing through a forest inhabited by wild animals.
“We eventually got to a centre some distance from Narok town, where we sheltered and waited for dawn. Early in the morning, we boarded the first matatu to Narok town, then boarded a taxi to the Tasaru rescue centre,” she says. “When my father found out, he was very angry. Then, I was heading to class six. The following month, I was enrolled at St Mary’s Boarding Girls Primary School in Narok, where I studied to class eight before joining Mogotio Girls Secondary in Baringo.”
In the days after her escape, her mother also went missing for a few days for fear of being beaten. Her father, says Naila, would have definitely thought that her mother had aided her. Her escape also created a rift between her father and her uncle.
“When I was in Form Three, we attempted to reconcile, but that failed. My father had heard about our coming and was waiting for us armed with a bow and arrows. We took a detour to my uncle’s place and left our gifts to him, then went back.”
But she was glad that her father later came around to embrace her again. Naila’s father, Mayan, * says his desire to see his daughter married off was not malicious, but was out of love.
“I now know better and acknowledge that FGM and child marriage are harmful. FGM causes difficulties when it comes to child birth among other harms. We have to allow our girls to go to school and determine the direction that their life should take, ” Mayan is quoted saying in the report by Equality Now.
Janet* was also lucky to escape early marriage. At 12 years of age, her first attempt to escape failed, when the person she ran to for refuge called her family. From Morijo village in Loita, Janet lived with her aging grandmother, helping her tend livestock after school. A few months after she turned 12, she recalls her grandmother telling her it was time to get married.
“It was December 2018, and when she told me that, I refused, and told her I wanted to continue with my studies. She said, ‘Wacha nikupatiane nipate mali, nitakuwa nakutembelea kwako’ (let me give you away for marriage so that I can get dowry, I will be visiting your home),” she says.
“I knew that being married early would ruin my education, so I ran away to the chief’s house to seek refuge. I stayed there for a week as my grandmother and parents looked for me. Unbeknownst to me, she looked for my grandmother, who took me home to my parents. Together, at night, they gave me away to the old man that wanted to marry me.”
But she escaped into a forest after the man took her to his place. The following morning, she went to a pastor’s house and told him about her family’s plans to marry her off.
“I stayed there for three days as my father looked for me. After a short period, the pastor took me to local administrators, who called officials from the Tasaru rescue centre, where I’m still living. My father was arrested soon after, but I have not seen him,” she says.
A few weeks before she was told about the plan to marry her off, her grandmother had taken her to visit the elderly woman’s sister, unaware that a plan for FGM was already in place. While there, she underwent the procedure, with the razor wielded by her grandmother’s sister.
“At that time, I didn’t know that what I underwent was FGM. But I knew it was wrong, and I felt a lot of pain. I am now in class six, and would like to become a journalist when I grow up,” says Janet.
“I haven’t talked to my parents ever since my father was released from prison. I also don’t know if they still love me, and I have never talked to my mother. I miss home, but I will only go there once I am done with school.