Kenya: Adolescents act against child marriage in Kakuma refugee camp

By Elizabeth Harrop

11 April 2016

Read this article on the website of UNICEF ESARO

For many fleeing conflict and living in refugee camps, the absence of war and freedom from fear of violence may be the most obvious contrast to life at home, however camp life can be far from safe.

Kakuma camp in North East Kenya is one of the largest refugee camps in the world, and home to 186,000 refugees and asylum seekers from 21 countries. Over half of them are children. Hundreds of cases of sexual violence are reported each year and tensions mirroring ethnic divisions in home countries can spill over into violence in the camp.

Similarly, harmful traditional practises such as child marriage and female genital mutilation and cutting (FGM/C) which may be prevalent at home, continue to be practised in the refugee camp, violating the human rights and wellbeing of children who have already experienced so much hardship.

Community-led advocacy programmes address threats to children’s safety

Adolescent advocacy group Kakuma EWH 21 Dec 15 - low resUNICEF and its partners, the UNHCR and Lutheran World Federation (LWF), are working with adolescents aged 15-25 in the camp to run community-led advocacy programmes addressing these threats to children’s safety.

Young people work together in five multinational and multi-ethnic groups, from countries including Burundi, The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Ethiopia, Rwanda, Somalia, South Sudan, and Sudan. The groups also include young people from the host community living outside the camp.

Purpose and life skills

Clarisse Umubyeyi Ntampaka, Child Protection Officer, UNHCR, comments: “Young people cannot go to college or work, and so idleness leads to a sense of hopelessness and negative coping mechanisms such as drug and alcohol abuse. The advocacy programme gives them purpose and a way to gain valuable life skills.”

Asoumani, a young man from DRC who is part of the advocacy programme, comments: “Alcohol and drug abuse are a contributor to SGBV. We sensitise the community on substance abuse by performing plays, songs and music, as a starting point for discussion. The situation here in the camp gives a sense of despair, but the group has given me refuge and I forget my solitude. I am working with others and learning leadership skills.”

It is the young people themselves who are charged with identifying the subjects they wish to campaign on. The groups are trained on how to produce a project proposal including how to identify issues affecting them, for example not feeling safe at home or in the camp. In this way the programme develops the talents and networks of young people, identifies issues important to them,  while also raising awareness of these child rights and protection issues such as sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), child marriage, substance abuse, HIV/AIDS, and girls’ empowerment.

Child marriage at Kakuma camp and in South Sudan

Clarisse Umubyeyi Ntampaka explains that child marriage is a huge issue in the camp: “Some child marriages are arranged in the country of origin and the husband’s family come to the camp to claim the child. Marriages are also arranged at the camp, particularly among South Sudanese and Somalis. Where a dowry has been paid there is great trouble undoing the arrangement and a safe haven is provided in case the child is abducted. Dowries for South Sudanese are typically $200-$300 but can be as high as $3,000 to $4,000”.

Indeed, in some regions of South Sudan, child marriage is one of the drivers of the conflict. Hon. Gora Hassan Odiel, Head of Department, Agriculture and Forestry, Greater Pibor Administrative Area (now Boma State), South Sudan, explains: “Child marriage is associated with the pastoralist tradition where cows are given as a dowry. Child marriage has historically been the cause of conflict in the Pibor area, due to the need to provide a large number of cows as a bride price – 80-90 cows for one marriage to be agreed. This lead directly to cattle raiding. The government intervened to set the dowry at 42-45 cows, which reduced conflict resulting from cattle raiding.”

Mother and son cropppedNgadok* (left) is a mother of seven children aged seven to 19. She lives in Pibor in South Sudan but fled to Kakuma refugee camp with her children when the conflict broke out in December 2013. She then returned to South Sudan.

Poverty and conflict have divided Ngadok’s family. Ngadock explains: “I lost my husband. I left two sons age 14 and 15 at Kakuma Camp because they can get schooling there. When I returned from Kakuma I joined the military. I saw many women killed and joined to avoid being killed myself. I boiled water and cooked. Another son was only 10 when he joined an armed group, I did not see him for two years.”

Ngadock continues: “God will feed us as we have no livelihood. There is pressure to marry my daughters. If someone asked I would arrange the marriage of my 11 year old as I need the assets from the dowry. But no one has asked. My 19 year old daughter married at 15 and has a child. She lives far away.”

Fighting back against child marriage

Patrick Wekesa, Medical Officer, LWF, has observed how individuals are fighting back against child marriage at Kakuma as a result of the advocacy campaign: “There was a case where a dowry was paid in South Sudan for a 14 year old girl. She is now 16 and at the camp and her father overheard a conversation between the girl’s mother and some men who had come to collect her. Her abduction was prevented as a result of the father reporting the case. Children themselves also feel open to share their experiences because of the awareness campaign.”

Duniar, from DRC who is organiser of the child marriage advocacy group, agrees: “Some marriages are arranged at 4 years old and the marriage then takes place at age 15. After our awareness raising children can stand up for themselves and girls will now report a case and are referred to the child protection team or the police. Boys will speak out on behalf of their sisters to stop them marrying.”

Education for girls is known to be protective against child marriage and many girls at Kakuma have benefited from both education and the UNICEF advocacy initiative, in order to defy norms which say they should be married as girls.

Rael and friend Kakuma EWH 21 Dec 15Rael from Sudan, age 23 (second from left), who belongs to the child marriage advocacy group at Kakuma comments: “I came here 15 years ago when I was eight. If I was still in Sudan I would be married with five children by now. But instead I am educated and know about the harms of child marriage. In Sudan we did not have the awareness, but here in the camp we found out about child rights.”


*Not real name

Photos: © UNICEF/ESARO 2015/Elizabeth Harrop



Liberty & Humanity

Read more about children in Kakuma camp: Four boys: From conflict in South Sudan to rebuilding lives in Kenya