KAJIADO, Kenya – In traditional Masai culture, fathers often promise their young daughters in marriage to older men. Most girls are between the ages of 12 and 14, with some even younger. Not only are their bodies too immature to deal with sexual intercourse and childbirth, but they are also usually forced to drop out of school. One Masai woman is on a personal quest to rescue these girls from early marriage, in addition to helping her community understand the benefits of educating their daughters.
Priscilla Nangurai knows the hardships faced by Masai women. Her older sister was forced into marriage at a young age, but insisted that Nangurai be given an education instead of taking the same path. As a result, she was able to become a teacher, allowing her to rescue other girls from forced marriage.
Officially retired since 2005, Nangurai runs GRACE -- the Girls’ Rights, Attention, Care and Education rescue center -- from her backyard in Kajiado, Kenya. There, she ensures the girls receive an education.
Nangurai says that the problem begins when the girl is very young - and sometimes not yet even born. She explains the concept of "booking" a wife.
“Booking is when a parent, or a man, wants to marry from a certain family. So he can go to the family and if there are little girls there, he will book," she explained. "If one of the wives is expectant, he will say, ‘I want something from this womb.’ And he’s allowed to do that.”
Roseline, 14, has been at Nangurai’s rescue center since 2008. She was four years old when she was booked to a man she estimates was about 60 to 70 years old.
“Yes, I was booked. But when I knew the person they had booked me, I just talked to Mrs. Nangurai and told her the whole story and then (s)he told me, ‘I will come and take you,” Roseline recalled.
In Masai culture, once the booking has been made, the man starts paying dowry to the girl’s father. Traditionally the payment is made in cows, although today, money can also be exchanged. Once the girl’s father and the husband-to-be determine that the marriage will soon take place, the girl must undergo female circumcision, otherwise known as Female Genital Mutilation.
Priscilla, 13, was brought to the rescue center when she was five, thanks to her mother who was adamant that her daughter receive an education. Priscilla says that health concerns alone make her thankful that she didn’t have to undergo circumcision. She is especially concerned with HIV - another threat.
“They don’t circumcise one person with one razor blade. Maybe when we are two girls, they can use this one to the first girl and then they use it again to another one. So that’s why I don’t want that,” she says.
Priscilla says that sometimes the circumciser doesn’t even have a razor blade, instead using a piece of scrap metal. Once married, girls continue to suffer the physical toll.
“Physically, the child is not ready for sexual intercourse, for giving birth and I’ve seen that most of the girls that get married early, give birth to still babies," Nangurai explained. "We have records from the district hospital. Then, giving birth, is very, very difficult for them. And, most of them have to have a Cesarean section, when they are giving birth, the first birth. Because they are very young, 13 years, 14 years. Really, these are children, giving birth to children.”
Traditionally, the practice of early marriage was used to cement bonds between families and to protect and increase wealth, which was measured in cows.
“Let me say, in the olden days, the Masai were very wealthy. They had huge numbers of animals. So he brought in many wives, to take care of his wealth," she said. "But now there’s nothing to take care of, because they are diminishing. Because of poverty, and because of persisting droughts, the animals are dying. So they don’t have that kind of animals now. But they still want to be recognized at [the] village level, by your age-mates. ‘Oh, I have five wives,’ ‘I have six wives.’ The more wives you have, the wealthier you are.”
Priscilla says that the Masai should educate all the girls, who will later find good jobs and be able to support their families. She says the dowry payment of cows is only short-term gain.
“The cattle can come, you have given [them] away, and your future is over. But now, if you’re educated, you can continue to help your village and help your family,” she said.
Nangurai says that it is not easy to change deeply engrained cultural views. But she refuses to give up.
“When I retired, the men really rejoiced, I hear there were celebrations. Because ‘Oh, she has retired, we can do what we want,'” she recalled.
Nangurai has rescued more than 700 girls since 1986. She now has 15 girls at her center and is building a dormitory to house up to 80 girls.