At least 20 girls at a village in Mombasa aged 13-18 years old are either pregnant or have babies.
Early marriages have become a norm in Kibokoni village, Utange, where young girls are forced into marriage by their parents whenever they realise the child is pregnant.
But a teacher in this area is changing the narrative by rescuing girls in this predicament.
Child human rights defender Elizabeth Kadzo, 48, is the brains behind the rescue of young girls from going into marriages because of their circumstances.
She belongs to the Beacon Teachers Movement, which works together to keep children safe both at school and home.
“We have so many cases of early pregnancies of girls below 18 years, who are in both primary and secondary schools, and as a result, most of them have been married off by their parents,” Kadzo said.
“Early marriages have become a business in our community. Pregnant children are forced into marriage by their parents in exchange for dowry.”
Inspired by the injustices, Kadzo turned her home into a rescue centre, where she briefly accommodates girls married off before returning them to their parents or taking them to a safe house.
With only her teacher’s salary and no other source of income, she struggles to feed the girls and prepare them mentally for motherhood.
At the moment, Kadzo has 20 pregnant girls under her watch, aged between 11 and 17 years.
Seven of them were rescued from forced marriages and either returned to their homes or placed in other safe centres.
Despite her selfless work, which can only be compared to the works of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Kadzo’s efforts have met opposition and criticism, especially from parents of girls she has rescued.
Kadzo said most parents believe the issue can be solved among themselves and, therefore, there is no need to report the matter to the authorities.
She added that parents feel she interferes with their lives because they already exchanged the children with dowry.
“I have three cases in court, but helping these children is so hard because parents have a habit of solving the cases among themselves, so sometimes I get dismissed when I try to raise the issue to parents,” Kadzo said.
Kadzo said the people responsible for the pregnancies are both adults and schoolboys under 18, and most of them end up denying the pregnancies.
Ferdinand Gharama, the village elder, said parents are encouraging their children to get married at an early stage because they are always blamed by the police.
“When a mother goes to a police station to report a defilement case, they are always blamed for neglecting their children, and they end up not getting the help,” Gharama said.
He blamed the government for discouraging them from taking any action whenever a case is reported.
According to the statistics from the Children’s department, in four months since the closure of schools due to coronavirus, at least 995 cases of early pregnancies have been reported among schoolgirls.
Children’s department county director Philip Nzenge said the number might exceeding the record because not all cases are reported.
“We have a big challenge in reaching and helping these children because the parents are quiet, they don’t want to report these cases,” Nzenge said.
Nzenge said parents hide the children and keep the early marriage cases to themselves because in most cases, there is usually an agreement between the two families in terms of exchange of the child into marriage and dowry.
“I have so far received 11 cases from Majaoni, and three are already at the police station. It is high time the community also comes out to help us in reporting these cases of defilement and early marriages,” Nzenge said.
He said his department is working with the county commissioner to find ways of rescuing and helping the children.
I am urging the community to kindly work with us because our main aim is to strengthen the community structure and not remove the children from the community. We want a strong community, which will give child protection first priority,” Nzenge said.