This is the second article in our series to mark the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence, a partnership between the Star and COVAW.
Nekai (not her real name) is 16 years old. She was 10 when she was beaded. She fell pregnant at 14 which was most likely at the peak of her puberty and onset of her menstrual periods. When she was beaded she did not fully understand what was expected of her as far as relating with the moran was concerned. All she knew was it was a good thing to be the chosen one – it meant she was special. Today she says she went along with it since it was expected of her by her community. She could not challenge ‘her man’ or anyone who had approved that situation. At times refusal to have sex led to being beaten.
For girls such as Nekai, this is their first sexual experience and it becomes their first sense of what it means to be in an intimate relationship. Their bodies are used to preserve kinship ties and ensure that the warriors of the community are well catered for. A moran is not expected to get married during his term as his role to protect the community members and herds is too demanding to have him make time for a family life. In a society where the state is supposed to or provides security to all its citizens, it is important to explore the shifting roles of the morans in favour of ending the practice.
Nekai and other beaded girls available for the sexual pleasure of the morans are not expected to get pregnant. They do not have access to information and services that would prevent pregnancy such as contraceptives, have no choice as to whether the moran uses a condom or not thus exposing them to the risks of contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, and once they fall pregnant are not expected to have the baby. When Nekai got pregnant, the moran left her and the elderly women in the family arranged to have her undergo crude, forced and unsafe abortion performed in the bush. When she learned about the plans to take her to the bush she ran away from home. Eventually someone took her to a rescue centre at Archers’ Post that has a school for girls. After giving birth she continued to be in school as her mother accepted to look after her son.
Not all girls in Samburu get this support. Majority of them have to undergone unsafe abortion with women using elbows and heels to push the foetus out. Some of the girls are maimed for life while others die in the process. When I asked one of the elderly women about girls who die during this process, she said it is a sign of evil spirits and that it is willed that they should die to get rid of bad omens. There is always a supernatural explanation for the deaths of women and girls based on culture. A woman’s body is the loci of culture thereby turning a woman’s body into culture itself. The practice of beading of girls equates to modern day sexual slavery. It also constitutes statutory rape. The reason it is not viewed as such is that it is done within a culturally accepted space and as a cultural practice that is used to bestow a sense of personhood to girls and women that belong to the community.
A huge number of girls born into the Samburu community are not enrolled in school. Generally education is yet to be taken seriously for both girls and boys but the situation for girls is worse as they are exposed to various harmful practices as part of preparing them to be good wives and mothers. This failure to appreciate the importance of education has greatly contributed to the entrenchment of the various violations of their rights. Lest you forget, at some point in their lives, the girls are still expected to go through female genital mutilation and then get married off to the highest bidder. The moran who beads a girl is not the one expected to marry her.
The beading of girls, female genital mutilation, early, forced and child marriages are all harmful practices that should have no place in our cultures. They are forms of violence and constitute violations of the rights of girls. Apart from violating their bodily integrity and other human rights, such practices put girls at risk of ill health, nips their education prospects and dims their dreams for a bright future. These harmful practices have direct and dire consequences on the sexual and reproductive health and rights of girls and young women which at times lead to deaths. For Nekai, she just wants to be in school, play, laugh, get a chance to live to her full potential and most importantly, just be a child.