Fight against child marriage slowed by school closure

School protects girls as they are expected to show up for learning, have friends who look out for them

In Summary

• We must look out for girls, especially in communities such as the Samburu so they are not disempowered before schools reopen. 

• Unicef says Kenya has the 20th highest absolute number of child brides in the world with 23 per cent being married before their 18th birthday and four per cent before 15. 

TEEN PREGNANCY: Schoolgirls.
Image: FILE

The spread of Covid-19 has been on an upward trajectory with nearly all the 47 counties recording a case and new cases surpassing the 11,000 mark since the first case was confirmed in Kenya in March. 

In a move to protect pupils and students, the government closed all schools until September, sending all learners home.

Later, the Ministry of Education under CS George Magoha shelved the earlier plans of reopening basic learning institutions in September and pushed this to January 2021. The collateral effect of this could be dire and undo the progress made in decades of ending child marriage and keeping girls in school. 

The World Health Organization has already noted that violence against girls and women remains a major threat to global public health during emergencies, including early marriages.

Despite making commendable steps, Kenya has the 20th highest absolute number of child brides in the world with 23 per cent of Kenyan girls being married before their 18th birthday and four per cent before 15, according to the United Nations International Children's Fund.

The organisation cited poverty, level of education and adolescent pregnancies as major drivers of this harmful practice. 

The decision of the government to keep schools closed will allow predators to keep hurting minors and perpetrators of child marriage to conceal it as no one will wonder where the girls are. 

Schools protect girls. The pandemic is also making it more difficult for girls to access reproductive health services which could lead to a rise in teenage pregnancies and increased cultural pressure to marry. This harms both the health and future of the girl. 

Therefore, the effects of extending the closure of schools should be a major concern not just to the government itself but to every other stakeholder including community leaders and civil society organisations that have been working against child marriage. 

We can't wait for the health crisis to pass first. Increased community surveillance must be put in place, especially in communities where the practice is more intensified such as Samburu and Narok to ensure girls are not disempowered before schools reopen next year. 

The fight against child marriage and teenage pregnancies must continue by watching each others' backs to ensure no guardian marries off their minors. The girls must also be protected and empowered to know how to protect themselves from sexual abuse or premature sexual activity that would lead to pregnancy.