Mrs Josephine Kulea, Founder of Samburu Girls Foundation
Josephine Kulea is a child rights activist and the founder of Samburu Girls Foundation USA President Barack Obama recently praised her achievements during his Remarks to the Kenyan People.
This interview with Mrs. Josephine Kulea was conducted on April 16, 2014 by the African Child Information Hub, during the 23rd Ordinary Session of the ACERWC (07 - 16 April, 2014) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
InfoHub: Thank you, Mrs. Jospehine Kulea, for accepting this interview with the African Child Information Hub. We highly appreciate your commitment, and we thank you for making a space for us in your busy schedule.
Josephine, you have created Samburu Girls Foundation because of your personal experience on child marriage. Can you tell us more about this?
Jospehine Kulea: I grew up in this cultural community called "Samburu community" and we are highly traditional. We believe that girls should be married off, not go to school. But I was lucky enough to go to school thanks to the support of the church that sponsored my education (in high school). But when I was in school, every year the same news was waiting for me: my uncles were going to marry me off because my dad had died when I was young. But my mom fought for me. Eventually I finished high school, I did well but I could not proceed to university because we did not have the funding. I was supposed to marry someone I didn't know. So I ran away.
InfoHub: How old were you when you ran away?
Jospehine Kulea: I was 17. I just finished high school. They tried to marry me off to a stranger, someone I didn’t know. I ran away. Eventually I married someone else that I ran to for refuge. But still I was too young. I ended up getting married to him. I gave birth to my first child before 18. After that, I applied for a scholarship to go to a nursing school. And, when in nursing school, I decided to go back to my community and help other girls who were facing the same problems. So this is how I came back to work in the community. I started rescuing girls, and there were many. We decided to register the Foundation to help more.
InfoHub: The beading practice which is widespread in your community is considered a harmful traditional practice. Can you explain to our readers what it consists of?
Jospehine Kulea: Beading is basically a practice where the young girls in the community, in the village are allowed to have a boyfriend but the boyfriend has to be a relative. You are not allowed to marry that person (since they are a relative) but you can sleep with them officially. The boyfriend buys some kinds of beads and that’s where the word 'beading' comes from. He puts the beads around the girl's neck, so that everyone officially knows that you are engaged, you are somebody’s girlfriend, you are with that man. The problem with the beading practice is that the boyfriend is a relative, he is someone you cannot marry. And when the girls get pregnant, which most do, they go through crude abortion or, if they give birth, they kill the babies at birth. With the Foundation, we rescue both the girls and their babies from this harmful traditional practice. We are trying to educate the community about the fact that it's fine for these girls to have boyfriends, but outside the clan, not their relatives. Because once they get pregnant, they can still marry them off. The temporary marriage to relatives does not make sense anymore. So we have a lot of work and a lot of interventions are needed.
InfoHub: What are the main causes and consequences of child marriage?
Jospehine Kulea: The main cause for child marriage, especially in the Samburu community, is tradition. It is more prestigious to marry your daughter when she is younger, so that she does not get older and may not get pregnant and bring shame to the family. This is the main reason why parents marry their daughters off.
The second most important reason is poverty: sometimes parents just sell off their children for livelihood, in order to have an income, because they trade them for money. These are the main causes for child marriage in our community.
InfoHub: And what are the consequences of being married too young?
Jospehine Kulea: When girls are married too young, the first consequence is that they cannot give birth, because their body is not ready for this. Additionally, among the Samburu, female genital mutilation (FGM) is 100 percent. You are cut on the day of your wedding and you walk to your new home bleeding. Then you are expected to play the role of a woman, to satisfy your husband and to make children. Because of the FGM, you also get scars and lots of girls develop fistula.
As you can see, child marriage makes lots of damage to the girl, in terms of reproductive health, but also in terms of psychological trauma, because these girls are still "babies" and they are asked to play the role of older women. There are many cases of disabilities. Also, the girls are destabilised. In the end, they realise that they are a source of labour and income for their family. Child marriage has a lot of side effects for the girls.
InfoHub: Can you explain to our readers what the work of Samburu Girls Foundation is? How does it work, and where?
Jospehine Kulea: We are based in Northern Kenya. Northern Kenya is basically made of arid lands, and semi-arid areas, that are mostly inhabited by pastoral nomads. We keep livestock and move from place to place for pasture and water.
So we, at Samburu Girls Foundation, inform the community about our activities, such as rescuing young girls whose parents are not willing, especially the mothers or the girls themselves, to marry them off. We explain to the communities how to reach us. As soon as we hear of a girl about to be married off, we go to the police station so we can get an escort or a vehicle, because as a young project we still do not have a car to rescue these girls so it is difficult. You go to the police and sometimes they tell you that they do not have fuel. So you end up paying the government's fuel from your own pocket.
InfoHub: Don’t the police feel responsible?
Jospehine Kulea: It is difficult to work with the police. Sometimes they are corrupt; they want money to help us, even though it is their job. Sometimes we have to push them; the deal is to pay the government vehicle to go and get the girl. So once we rescue the girl, the way we approach the parents varies. Whenever we rescue a girl before the wedding day (sometimes a week ahead), we try and negotiate with the parents. We get the girl without arresting anyone because they do this out of ignorance. They do not know that it is wrong.
But when it comes to people we have warned, who had promised that they would not marry their daughter and eventually we understand that they have done it, these ones get arrested so that the community learns that it is punishable.
After we rescue the girls, we take them to boarding schools. Then, for those on whose behalf a negotiation had taken place, there was no transaction in the first place. Usually the dowry is paid on the day of the wedding. If the wedding didn’t happen there is no debt. We reconcile those ones easily after a few months (three to six) with their dad.
But those who have already paid dowry and married off their daughter, who stayed a few months with their "husband", we have to get the girl back and refund the dowry. It becomes a big issue because there’s a lot of enmity and pain in the family. All these cases go to courts where we ask for custody. Then we work together with Children’s offices in order to determine what’s best for them.
Our objective is to empower them before we let them go back to the village. We do not keep them forever. We let them go for school breaks. So they just go for one or two weeks and they have to come to us again, to go back to school. This is our way of monitoring them. Sometimes we face challenges where the girls go to their family and, because of the nomad way of life, they disappear and we do not know what happens to them. Are they going to get pregnant? Now we have to look for other ways to monitor these cases. Ultimately we want to build our own rescue centres. We want to bring the girls together, to empower them. When they go back to their community, they are able to say no to abuses and they can tell the other girls to run away from this type of problems. We will get there slowly but surely.
So far we are running since 2 years and we have rescued 164 girls.
InfoHub: What happens when the rescued girls have babies?
Jospehine Kulea: Once they have babies, they breastfeed them up to 6 months and if the baby is not wanted in the family, which is almost always the case, we take the children to children's homes and the girls go to boarding schools.
InfoHub: Do you also target men in your awareness raising activities in the community? Do they agree that it is wrong to marry a child?
Jospehine Kulea: Actually we target all kinds of people in the community, both the old, the young, the men, the women, the young men and the young girls because it is men who make decisions in the community. So we inform them that it is wrong. At the end of the day, when they marry off their daughter, it is them who are arrested. We do not arrest women. And we inform the girls about their rights. Sometimes, the girls themselves do not really want to be rescued because they feel "why I am being rescued?" They think that it is fine to be married because they grow up being told that you are only important if you have a husband. So they ask us "why are you refusing me to get a husband?" This is why we talk to everybody in the community.
InfoHub: What are the main challenges faced by the Foundation?
Jospehine Kulea: The main challenge is the resistance from the community because the people in the community are highly illiterate. They do not understand what you mean by "law", what you mean by "child’s rights". "What is this?" They do not care.
“This is culture, we have been doing this for years. So why would we stop now?” That’s a big change. Additionally, we do not have any support from the political leaders. They do not want to upset their voters. They want status quo so that they keep on lying to them and, after a few years, they get back the votes and continue what they do best.
InfoHub: Can you explain further?
Jospehine Kulea: It is a strategy not to step on their toes. "We are not involved in what Josephine is doing and let her do it on her own." The other issue with the government office is the problem I was talking about earlier: the police are the ones supposed to help anyone in trouble, especially the children. But they think that it is people’s culture and that they should not disturb them. It is difficult for us to try to even push them to do their work.
And the same thing goes with the local leaders. It is worse because they are the ones supposed to represent the government at the local level but they are the ones who are marrying off 10-year-olds. They are the ones killing their children through FGM. They are the ones giving their children for early marriage. They want to marry young kids and they are the leaders. It is a really bad example of leadership.
So these are some of the challenges but the biggest challenge we are facing right now, as an organisation, is funding. Because we have to get this done. Once we get the girl she is all our business and the family does not care. We take care of absolutely everything about these girls. When we rescue a girl, she needs uniforms, shoes; she needs everything from head to toe.
InfoHub: How much money does the Foundation need in order to run its activities and continue expanding?
Jospehine Kulea: We have girls at different school levels. For girls in high school, the tuition fees are USD 600 per year per girl, and for those in elementary school, it is USD 300 per year. The fees are high because we need to pay for boarding school. And there are other costs.
Overall, for education purposes, we spend USD 8,000 a year to cover all the girls we have now at the rescue centre. But we really want to build our own rescue centre, which would be an ideal place where these girls can come and stay like a second home. Basically it should have a dormitory and a capacity of almost 80 girls at a time because we don’t want it to be like a children’s home where they stay forever. After a few months, they go back home and others come. It is a cycle. We also need a dining hall, 2 classrooms for extracurricular activities and an office. So if you calculate all that, it comes to around USD 200,000. And there are also running costs so for the first year, we might need an amount of about USD 250,000.
InfoHub: Where would this centre be located?
Jospehine Kulea: In Samburu. Currently we are also reaching outside of Samburu. We have people from Marsabit and other counties where pastoralist communities live, who are really interested in what we do. We have the same culture and they are doing the same. Now people know about us and they are calling us for girls. So there are 4 counties in the northern areas where we have rescued girls from. Everyone is seeking help. The demand is increasing but the resources are low.
InfoHub: Are you willing to have any other type of activities, such as awareness raising?
Jospehine Kulea: Actually, our biggest activity (on top of rescuing girls) planned is community awareness. But we are really restrained by resource. In order to implement this, we need to go to the villages to reach out to those interior areas where there is no proper road. First you need to get a car; you need to have all other kinds of resources. You need to bring the community together maybe for a sitting and in a community where you do not mix men and women in meetings, you need to have two separate meetings, because a woman cannot speak if there are men in the meeting. That’s the law, the constitution of the community, so it’s interesting because you cannot plan one meeting one day in one place, so you either go and camp there or you keep going every other day to make sure you are reaching out to different groups of people. The advantage of separating men and women is that we are able to bring out age groups together and talk about the issues of concern to them. Girls alone are free to talk about all their problems. The young men alone, the older men and then the women. So it’s a different kind of approach. In the end, it is all about resources. With more resources, we’ll be able to reach out more communities.
InfoHub: What would you advise these girls if you could directly speak to them? What would you advise their parents who want to marry them off and, in general, what do you say to our readers? What could they do if they hear of such child marriage?
Jospehine Kulea: First I would tell the girls that they are young, they are still children so they do not really know what is good for them or not right now. They just want to follow the wave of culture, of tradition. They need time to grow and be women. They will still get married, there is no hurry for them, because there will be time for everything so it is time to grow up and when you get there you’ll get married anyway.
To the parents who want to marry off their daughters, it is not always about money. Investing in a girl is like investing in the whole society. And if that girl goes to school she has high chances of getting a job and bringing back more. She could buy them those cows that they desperately want. She can buy them even more than that in the long term. And of course take them to school because that is the best gift you can give to a child: education.
Across Africa, anywhere if a child is in trouble of getting married then the best thing you can do is just report. Just report to any authority. Don’t stop there. Follow up if they did something because with reporting some States do nothing but some, when you report, and you push them, really follow up. Reporting by one person makes a really big difference because when somebody who is concerned hears about it, that child will be saved. But the moment we all watch and keep quiet and get surprised and talk about it then the child will not be helped so let’s report or refer the case to other agencies who can act.
InfoHub: What are the perspectives for the future with regards to child marriage?
Jospehine Kulea: For example, in Kenya, laws have been passed, but there is no implementation so my hope is once the government wakes up and starts implementing these laws, our work will be easier and it will also be easier for the government. That’s my perspective.
Additionally, when the government is recruiting officers to work in such areas where these cases are widespread, it should be a priority issue. They should be able to tackle it. The government should be able to provide resources to these officers. They go to Children’s office for support and there’s no car to help go rescue a child. At the end of the day, these resources are limited so the officers get demoralised.
If all these things were brought together, if all these things were approached in a comprehensive manner, child marriage would be a thing of the past. Once the community is aware, the children know that it is their right not to get married and that people are being prosecuted for this.
InfoHub: Is there anything else you would like to add to conclude our interview?
Jospehine Kulea: I want to reach out to children's organisations in such areas. It is important that they see where they work, what areas they target and how they can reach out to more children. Because what we are doing currently in the NGO world is like there is more money being spent in deliberations in hotels while the child at the village level is suffering. I believe in reducing running costs because I believe that the money spent to hold a meeting in a big hotel for 10 people to deliberate on what to do would be better spent in 20 villages.
InfoHub: Thank you very much, Mrs. Josephine Kulea, for sharing your personal experience and expectations with our readers in this interview. We wish you all the possible success in your work in the community and we assure you of our steadfast support.
Reminder: This interview was conducted in April 2014.