SIJILONI, Kenya – The girl was only 12 years old, but her father had already married her off. He wanted to show gratitude to a longtime servant; the gift was his daughter.
The father knew the marriage would be condemned within his community, so he arranged to smuggle her out of their village of Sijiloni, in Kenya’s southern Kajiado county, into neighboring Tanzania.
With the support of the village chief, the girl’s father may have thought the deal was done, but he wasn’t counting on a group of women determined to prevent child marriage using a novel tool: WhatsApp.
Esther Shena, a gender officer with the Kajiado County government, heard about the plan and alerted a group she had set up on the free smartphone messaging service. They reported the intended marriage to the authorities.
“Because we piled on pressure using the network, the chief was forced to produce the girl,’’ Shena told News Deeply.
Shena had set up the WhatsApp group in 2014 to track potential cases of female genital mutilation (FGM) and forced marriage in Sijiloni, before reporting them to the respective authorities. Today, there are 36 local people in the group.
She said she was distressed by the many cases of FGM she encountered in her work in the pastoralist Maasai communities of the county, and was determined to find a solution to the problem.
“It’s not a secret: Here in Kajiado, most of our girls have to undergo circumcision, and what follows this rite of passage is that they are married off,” she said.
“This is the major cause of school dropouts and the beginning of unwanted pregnancies among young girls.”
When a member of the group receives a tip-off relating to FGM or forced marriage, she posts the message immediately, and the police and local administrators are informed.
“Whenever we receive a report of such cases, they are posted on the group, and immediately, the members from the area swing into action with the help of security officers,” Shena said.
The group also steps in to help at-risk girls stay in school. “Someone will say, ‘I will pay her school fees, I will clothe her,’ and that is what we are doing,” Shena said.
The Dangers of FGM
Female genital mutilation has been illegal in Kenya since 2011, but is still prevalent in rural areas. Kenya’s latest demographic survey found that 1 in 5 women and girls age 15-49 have undergone the practice, though rates are now falling. The overwhelming majority of Kenyans oppose the practice.
FGM and child marriage are closely linked: Often girls are cut before being married off. Data from UNICEF show that 23 percent of girls in Kenya are married before their 18th birthday.
Madam Lucy, a deputy headteacher at Bassil primary school in Kajiado, said FGM has contributed to a high level of illiteracy among women in the area.
She says was particularly provoked by the case of one very young girl.
“I was very much troubled when one of my pupils – aged 8 – was circumcised and got married. This rite of passage must be stopped,’’ she said.
Roselyn Manuva, the assistant county commissioner, who works closely with the women in Shena’s group, said the use of WhatsApp had saved many girls who were lined up for FGM and forced marriage. She too condemns the practice.
“If you compare the number of girls who were undergoing FGM some years back, to date you will realize that the number is reducing,” she said.
“This is what we want – we need our people to reject this dangerous rite and embrace education.”
Shena says her dream is to see children, especially girls, pursuing education to university level and becoming self-reliant. She says the WhatsApp group has made a huge difference to her work as a gender officer.
“Initially when I was an officer, a mother would come to me to report that her child had been married off or was being forced to undergo FGM, and I couldn’t do a lot on my own,” she said.
“But look now: We all move out together to rescue girls.”
This is part of a series of articles to mark the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence campaign.