Josper spoke despondently about how she was forced into having sex as a child because of an ancient village custom. Unsurprisingly, she found herself pregnant by the age of 12. She was then made to abandon her new-born baby by the river bank so that the lions could eat it. “It hurts me a lot when I remember what I did, but I was advised by the elders to do it,” she explained.
In a tradition known as “beading”, older men rape these young girls – some as young as 6 years old. It is the fate of many Samburu girls in the far-flung dusty enclaves of Kenya.
A close relative will meet with the girl’s parents and offer her a necklace intricately woven with bright beads on behalf of a man from the community. Once accepted, the chain will be placed around the child’s neck and the man is then able to start a sexual relationship with the girl. Around this time, the girl will be prepared for female genital mutilation.
Her family will build a small hut adjacent to their home where the older male can visit their daughter to have sex with her any time he wishes. It is a temporary arrangement, but it could last for years.
The widespread belief is that this will prevent girls from being promiscuous and wayward – an idea that is upheld and protected by the elders. To go against it could ignite various superstitions, and will be seen as disrespecting the traditions of the local people.
As condoms are never used, many of the girls fall pregnant, however, the girls are not “allowed” to get pregnant. Any who does will be unable to keep the child, since it is regarded as a shame on the family, and will prohibit the girl from being able to get married.
Crude abortions are performed on pregnant girls, putting their health and lives at risk. If abortions are not possible, then after the girl gives birth, the baby is likely to be killed.
“I can’t give birth. I can’t bear a child,” said Joyce Lenatilia, who had undergone two abortions by the age of 12. “I was told that I might have terminated both pregnancies with the use of strong herbs, and so I can’t give birth again.
“I’m now an outcast, and everyone ridicules me,” she said. “I can’t talk to other women since I have no child. I’m now living alone without a child, and nobody wants to marry me.”
Further risks include HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, in an area where there are often high cases of STDs. Coupled with the fact that, after many botched abortions, a lot of women’s reproductive organs get injured, which results in added social stigma if she is unable to conceive. Many young girls are left feeling physically, emotionally, and mentally traumatised.
Dr. Josephine Kulea is an activist who founded Samburu Girls Foundation, (SGF) – a non-profit that is dedicated to rescuing girls from child-marriage, beading, and FGM. Over the years, she has worked relentlessly to save girls from this web of abuse. She has rescued almost 1,200 girls, and over 300 have been sponsored to go to school across the country.
A Samburu herself, she survived beading and early marriage. She was given a second chance at life when a priest helped to organise education for her at a boarding primary school in another area. Supportive of her education, her mother refused all advances from men in the village who expressed interest in Dr. Kulea. When she finished secondary school, she got a scholarship to attend the Mathari Consolata Nursing School in Nyeri.
Dr. Kulea believes that for change to come, there must be a start somewhere. “I just felt that it is wrong,” she says.
Something wrong is going on in my community. And that is where my passion began. And so I decided to help out the girls.