By Violet Ikong 

Achor* was just 13 years old and in primary school in the Kakuma refugee camp located in northwestern Kenya when her uncle told her he planned to marry her off. The news didn’t come as a surprise to Achor; she had been born in the camp and had seen many girls forced into early marriage by their parents and guardians. 

Members of Girl Care Initiative with female high school students after an awareness exercise.

  Families in the camp charge about KSh250,000 ($1,647.56) or more as bride price for girls, depending on factors like the financial status of the intended groom and the birth order of the girl.   

Achor’s uncle believed that after supporting Achor and her family financially since her father’s passing in 2003, the year she was born, it was time to reclaim his “investment” through her bride price.  

“My uncle saw me as an investment rather than the child I was. I was told that the only way I could help my family was to get married and change the situation at home with my bride price,” Achor, now 20, said.  

Established in 1992, the Kakuma refugee camp hosts over 200,000 South Sudanese refugees who live their daily lives battling poverty, hunger, and other challenges. Forcing their daughters to get married is one of many options that parents in the camp explore to ameliorate their suffering because they get large sums of money and livestock as bride price from men who marry the girls.  

“The South Sudanese refugee community living here are pastoralists who value livestock. So, you see, girls are forced to marry men who can pay their families with money and livestock because that is what they value. They just switch the goats, cows, and camels with these young girls,” said Wanjira Maina, a 33-year-old Kenyan woman who lives in Kakuma.   

Although there has been a global decline in the number of child marriages over the years, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reports that the practice is still highly prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa.   

Deng Kuir, co-founder of Girl Care Initiative

According to recent statistics from the agency, seven out of 10 countries in the world with the highest prevalence of child marriage are from sub-Saharan Africa, where some parents do not believe in education for girls. “They see [girls] as people who are meant to only carry out house chores, get married, give birth, and take care of the family,” Achor said. Some parents believe education corrupts girls and teaches them to oppose decisions made by their parents, guardians, and elders – including marriage decisions. To avert this, many parents deny girls access to education so the practice can continue to thrive. 

When Achor’s uncle made his decision known to her, he had expected she would quickly agree. But she did not and said she would not consent to child marriage. This did not sit well with her uncle. 

“He got angry and blamed my courage to oppose his marriage plans on my level of education. So, what he did was make sure I went to school once in a while, not every day, and he wouldn’t get me resources like books and uniforms. While other children were in the classroom, I would be at home most days, doing chores, and it continued that way even when I got into high school,” she said. 

The fight against forced marriage 

In 2022, Achor heard from friends about the Girl Care Initiative (GCI), a community-based organization in the camp whose work involves advocating for girls’ rights, especially the right to education. Gabriel Ajang and Deng Kuir, the organization’s founders, are South Sudanese refugees who have lived in the camp since 1994. They started GCI in 2020 when they noticed the upward trend of child marriages and teenage pregnancies, which worsened during the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown.  

“We decided that instead of just watching and doing nothing, we would start an organization and use it as a platform to create awareness on the dangers of child marriage and teenage pregnancy, as well as educate parents on the importance of girl child education,” Ajang said.  

Achor reached out to the organization for help, even though she had doubts that they could do anything to get her fully back in the classroom and free from the pressure of forced marriage. After listening to and documenting her story, the organization’s team educated her on girls’ rights and how to speak up when those rights are violated. 

  “Girls in the camp have always been treated as trade items without them knowing that it is a violation of their rights as girls. That is why we begin every intervention with first educating girls about their rights,” Kuir said.  

A team member at GCI educating female students about girls’ rights and forced marriage

Achor reached out to the organization for help, even though she had doubts that they could do anything to get her fully back in the classroom and free from the pressure of forced marriage. After listening to and documenting her story, the organization’s team educated her on girls’ rights and how to speak up when those rights are violated. 

  “Girls in the camp have always been treated as trade items without them knowing that it is a violation of their rights as girls. That is why we begin every intervention with first educating girls about their rights,” Kuir said.  

The team provided her with school materials and registered Achor in a boarding school in the camp, so she could be far away from her uncle and attend school daily. “I no longer attend school partially but fully, and I only go home during the holidays. I now have time to study, free from the pressure at home,” Achor said.  

As part of its programs and activities to support girl child education and save girls from forced marriages, GCI compiles a list of scholarships and opportunities that are available for girls to continue their education at the university level. They share these opportunities with girls in high school to inspire them and give them hope that they can get a university education and achieve their dreams without being forced into marriage. The team assists girls with the application process. 

Nyakim,* one of several girls who have won scholarships and pursued their educational dreams with the help of GCI, completed her high school education at age 19 in 2022. At that point, her family wanted her to get married. But she didn’t want to get married yet. “I had dreams of going to the university after high school to study software engineering, but that was not what my parents wanted. They wanted me to get married. Each time I tried to talk to them, they wouldn’t listen. They started looking for a suitor for me,” Nyakim said. 

The pressure from her parents to get married impacted her mental health. “I felt really bad like I didn’t have a say about my life. I was helpless, and each time I thought about it, I cried and suffered panic attacks a few times,” she said.  

She turned to GCI, and the team helped her to apply for the Mastercard Foundation Scholarship, which she won. She is now in her first year at the United States International University in Nairobi, studying software engineering on scholarship. “I cried when I saw that I had gotten the scholarship because I knew I was free from forced marriage,” Nyakim said. 

Female students in Kakuma during an awareness exercise by Girl Care Initiative

Still not free 

Many girls in the camp appreciate GCI’s work, but most parents and guardians do not. While the news of the scholarship excited Nyakim and the team at GCI, her parents continue to remind her that marriage is inevitable if she cannot retain her scholarship until graduation. And Achor’s uncle continues to pressure her whenever she is home for the holidays.   

“I am worried that the pressure could get worse after high school. My dream after high school is to go to university and prove to my uncle that education is something important that everyone deserves. But I’m not sure how I will be able to fight the pressure if it gets worse,” Achor said. 

Still, Achor counsels many girls in her school who are also under the pressure of early and forced marriages. “There are many girls in my school who face this problem. We have those who want to share their stories and some who don’t want to due to fear,” she said. 

The team at GCI sometimes suffers hostility from families who accuse them of spoiling the girls. “They believe we are giving too much and making the girls undisciplined. In an actual sense, what they mean is that the girls are learning to speak up for themselves and oppose being forced into marriage,” Ajang said. 

Achor and Nyakim are in school now, but they both dream of helping to fight child marriage in the camp in the future. “We want to prove to people in the camp that there’s more to girls than Kakuma’s walls and that girls can do so much with education. When you force girls to get married as children, you are limiting what they can do, and that is why we hope to help refugee girls in Kakuma and beyond fight for their rights,” Achor said.  

Girl Care Initiative is funded by donations from its members. To find out more: 

*Names changed to conceal the girls’ identities