KENYA: How climate change is driving FGM and early marriages

By Sylvia Thomson

CBC News producer & JHR trainer for the Canada World program

Margaret Nayeyo, 19, comes from a Maasai community in southern Kenya that was dramatically hit by the drought. All of her father’s cows died last year. “You know our family depends on cows,” she said. “There is no other option.” Her father could no longer afford to pay for her schooling so he pulled her out. Looking for a source of income, he and her grandfather prepared to have her circumcised (female genital mutilation) and married off for a dowry. “They only get five cows, sugar, blankets and then it is over, you are married off,” she said. Margaret is photographed here, at the Nice Place Foundation, a rescue centre that helps girls and young women in her situation.

When I arrived in Nairobi in early January, the local JHR team here was talking a lot about climate change and how it intersects with gender issues.

It’s been eye-opening in the hot, rainless months since then, to hear stories about how the climate is affecting girls here.

Marie Yambo, one reporter I’m mentoring, is telling the stories of girls in the south of Kenya, near the Tanzania border, at the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro – Maasai land. The cattle there are dying at an alarming rate and many of the corn fields have dried out.

Some of the poorest people who live there depend solely on incomes from crops and cattle. When both of those vanish, they look for income anywhere they can find it. And sometimes that means marrying off their daughters for a dowry (which often includes cattle, sugar, and blankets).

“Since last year all of our cows have died,” a 19-year-old told our reporter. “And since the cows died my father could no longer afford to pay for my education.”

She was taken out of school and her father and grandfather planned to have her circumcised (female genital mutilation) and married for a dowry. Instead, she escaped to one of Kenya’s rescue centres for girls.

READ SYLVIA’S MENTEE’S WORK: Drought Impacts – Drying income sources pushing girls to early marriage

Another girl at the same rescue centre was only 14 years old. She ran away from home when her uncles started talking about marrying her off. Her mother had recently lost her income from picking corn in the now completely parched fields near her home. This was the uncles’ solution.

Climate change can be an amplifier and multiplier of existing problems, and that’s what is happening with child marriages and FGM for some girls here in Kenya. While child marriages and the number of FGM cases have gone down in recent years, it still exists and climate change is exacerbating both.

In Kenya, JHR is working to create awareness around and support solutions for the human rights impacts of climate change and its disproportionate effect on women and girls. Working with local media and civil society organisations, JHR is helping to build momentum, consolidate local support for climate action, and promote locally-driven and gender-responsive solutions to tackle climate change.

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