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Early Marriage Foe Fights Back

By Sara A. Fajardo

For Esther Kutto, the determined headmistress of Dabaso Primary School, no other number than zero will do.

Esther Kutto with some of her students

Dabaso Primary School Headmistress Esther Kutto, center, is working to reverse the trends of teen pregnancy and early marriage among students in her Kenyan community with help from CRS and the Coast Interfaith Council of Clerics. Photo by Sara A. Fajardo/CRS

Since 2009, when she took the helm of the school in the Kenyan tourist city of Watamu, Esther has focused on the numbers she inherited: 30 girls pregnant, 51 dropouts and another dozen or so students married off for dowries or one less mouth to feed.

By 2011, the number of dropouts had fallen to a dozen and pregnancies to four.

A large, handwritten chart pinned on the wall facing her desk reminds her how far she's come and the distance she has yet to go. Firm in her belief that only education can open doors to the children in her school, Esther will stop at nothing to make sure that each one graduates and, if possible, moves on to high school.

The tools she uses to keep her students in school are both concrete and symbolic. Planted flowers make the campus more welcoming, the school sold coconuts from the handful of trees at the entryway to pay the electric bill and, soon after she started, the school erected a chainlink fence around its porous borders.

"Students were showing up to take attendance," Esther says, "and then leaving to earn money." Local boda-boda, or "motorcycle drivers," were cruising school grounds, searching for adolescent girls and boys to take to tourists for companionship and sex. The fence now keeps the students in class and the boda-boda drivers off school property.

Children Are Treated as Commodities

Esther's latest project is repainting the buildings. She chose a regal purple.

Girl Restores Her Life After Early Marriage

To settle a debt, Wakati* was married off by her grandmother to a man she scarcely knew. At the time, Wakati was 17 and in her last year of primary school in the coastal city of Watamu, Kenya. The man, a local herbalist, had been treating her father for an illness so excruciating, he was on the cusp of delirium. As his pain escalated, so did treatment costs.

Unable to pay, Wakati's grandmother saw no other remedy but to offer up her granddaughter in a desperate attempt to save her son and erase their debt.

"He took me to a hut, where he kept me for more than a week," Wakati says of the father of three who made her his second wife. "I was so afraid of getting pregnant. I was afraid of what would happen."

Wakati's father died soon after the marriage was consummated. "I miss my father," Wakati says. "That's the worst part. After everything, he still died."

She eventually escaped her husband with help from Dabaso Primary School Headmistress Esther Kutto and a concerned uncle. Although she still wakes up some nights crying, she is slowly repairing her life. She's learned to sew in tailoring classes supported by CRS and our partners the Catholic Diocese of Malindi and the Coast Interfaith Council of Clerics. Wakati now dreams of becoming a seamstress and helping the siblings she left behind.

"To marry is not bad, but in its own time," says Wakati of her experience. "I'd tell young girls not to marry," she advises. "It's better to wait and get an education first."

*Name has been changed.

"My students are kings and queens," she says, "I want them to know it."

In coastal Watamu, where poverty breeds desperation and families often resort to swapping sex for a meal, Esther's small symbolic act reinforces a message she infuses in each lesson taught at her more than 1,700-student school: The children of Watamu matter—and so do their futures.

It's a hard lesson to teach in a town where people often view children as a commodity.

Many families trade their adolescent daughters into marriage for modest sums of money. Others offer up the youth of their children to visiting mazungu wangu, meaning "my foreigner"—tourists who say they'll "sponsor" the children during their entire visit in exchange for sexual favors.

Even top students are not immune to this phenomenon. One of Esther's graduating eighth graders—whose national exam scores earned her a coveted spot in one of Kenya's most prestigious public boarding schools—was sold into marriage by her father for a mere $70.

The child escaped before the marriage could take place and sought help from Esther. The headmistress repaid the would-be husband from her own pocket to give the girl the type of future only higher education can provide. Now a thriving student at the boarding school, the girl spends her holidays and summer vacations with Esther.

Afterschool Clubs Teach Human Rights

Limited access to education because of poverty reinforces the idea that young lives are products. Families and communities have bartered young people for so many decades that they consider the practice a tradition. Esther, however, is determined to change that point of view. She's using an educator's most potent weapon: teaching students the power of their voice and giving them a platform to be heard.

Key to her success is the voluntary Peace Club she's formed with the support of Catholic Relief Services and our partners the Coast Interfaith Council of Clerics and the Catholic Diocese of Malindi. The 113-member afterschool club is based on the simple premise that teaching children about their fundamental human rights will help inform and shape the entire community.

Interfaith Cleric Group Appeals to Morality

The 140-member Coast Interfaith Council of Clerics says that faith guides people more than the rule of the law. Although some people might deviate from a governmental decree, people of faith are less willing to ignore God's word. And together the clerics can reach a large cross section of these faithful people.

One practice the council speaks against is early marriage, a common practice in Kenya's coastal communities. In some cases, girls as young as 8 years old are married off to older men in exchange for modest dowries. Now, the clerics require each couple to offer proof that a girl is over 18, the Kenyan legal age for marriage. The clerics are also using the pulpit to appeal to the community's sense of moral duty.

Muslim Imam Sheikh Badawy translates the training he's received from CRS about the legal implications of early marriage and its effect on girls into lessons his Muslim congregation will understand. "The prophet Mohammed," he says, "tells us that a girl is ready for marriage when she is mature and has intelligence. That means a girl must be educated before she marries."

Pastor Alfred Magambo echoes similar teachings in his own sermons. "Unity is strength," he says of the interfaith approach. "When we stand together as religious leaders, it adds weight to what we're saying."

Every Tuesday, the peace clubbers pour into chairs at rickety wooden desks to dramatize, debate and capture in poetry the issues they face. These students can recite verbatim what to do if a person makes sexual advances or what the penalty is for sexually abusing a child. The once-taboo topics of early marriage and taking on a mazungu wangu to help offset expenses are now open areas of debate. Girls have come forward to share how they've been offered as little as $10 to be fondled by a tourist or to talk about the fears they have of getting pregnant if they are made to marry young.

Well-informed and well-spoken peace clubbers perform at public functions and counsel fellow students. With the power of knowledge, they now monitor their communities for signs of trouble. They often report to teachers when they hear of a potential marriage or about a fellow student who is taking on a mazungu wangu.

Council of Clerics Lends Support

Justice for the children in Watamu, unfortunately, can be painfully and heartbreakingly slow. Although Esther and the teachers follow up on every offense that takes place on school grounds, the convoluted legal process is enough to discourage women even less tenacious than Esther.

Prosecuting a violator can take months, if not years. A molested child, for example, might have to visit the hospital on more than one occasion: once for a doctor's examination and a trip to the dentist, who can use an exam to pinpoint the age of a child without a birth certificate. Yet another visit may be required to fill out legal forms. To make matters worse, the police often lose paperwork, and files can sit on a legal clerk's desk for months.

Esther, however, knows she can rely on CRS and the Coast Interfaith Council of Clerics to help her take action on a case that is stagnating. The support of this vast network of clerics, she says, "encourages me as a teacher and makes me feel like my work is not in vain."

A teacher may not have the power to expedite the process, but a cleric can use his or her authority to do so. Some clerics have taken children to the hospital and police stations. Others have helped push court cases up on the docket list. One group even managed to close down The Big Daddy Club, a brothel that operated a block away from a school.

But, most important, the 140 clerics from a variety of faith groups echo the messages that the peace clubbers and Esther are sharing with the community: An investment in our children is an investment in our future.

Tally Inches Toward Zero

Thanks to Esther and the teachers at Dabaso, the community is beginning to realize that their children's potential is greater than short-term income for a needy family. As the tally of dropouts and pregnancies continues to inch toward zero, Esther is now focusing on a different set of numbers: how many of her students will continue on to secondary school—and, she hopes, beyond that.

Sara A. Fajardo is CRS' regional information officer for East Africa and southern Africa. She is based in Nairobi, Kenya.

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