What Does US Policy Have to Do With Child Brides and Drought in Kenya?

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Commentary Human Rights

What Does US Policy Have to Do With Child Brides and Drought in Kenya?

Jodi Jacobson

Years of misguided U.S. policy such as the Global Gag Rule have contributed to today's crisis in Kenya.

There’s a saying that if you are not part of the solution, then you are part of the problem. When it comes to news that Kenyan families, facing serious drought conditions and unable to feed their families, are now selling their young daughters off to buy food, the United States is a part of the problem. 

A big part.


As we reported two weeks back, the GOP and Tea Party majorities in the United States House of Representative are hell-bent on re-imposing the Global Gag Rule on U.S. international family planning assistance in a back and forth on policy that rivals Wimbledon.  And, as we reported in December 2010, House Republicans banded together to kill the International Child Marriage Prevention Act for no apparent reason other than to be ornery and adhere to a baseless ideology. The act would have required the U.S. government to develop an integrated, strategic approach to combating child marriage by promoting the educational, health, economic, social, and legal empowerment of women and girls, using existing resources. As in revenue-neutral, one of the terms du-jour.

Roe is gone. The chaos is just beginning.

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To top all of this off, Republican Congressmen Chris Smith (NJ), Joe Pitts (PA), and Mike Pence (IN) succeeded during the Bush Administration in forbidding the integration of family planning information and supplies into HIV and AIDS programs, though unprotected sex is the leading cause of HIV transmission and of course the cause of unintended pregnancy. This of course undermined cost savings in addressing the related problems of HIV infection and unintended pregnancy and also denied HIV-positive women in particular the right to decide whether or not to have another child. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops was particularly incensed at the idea these women would have such power and so lobbied very hard against integration.

These policies have had an enduring and damaging effect. During the Bush Administration, for example, the Global Gag Rule forced the closing of up to a dozen family planning clinics, including many in rural areas where women had no other options to receive birth control, well-woman care, pre-natal care, child immunizations, and childhood disease management services.  In 2004, on a trip to Kenya, I interviewed the male head of the Family Planning Association of Kenya who, in speaking about the loss of services to women in desperate need, was brought to tears of anger and frustration at the short-sightedness of the U.S. government. 

The U.S., therefore, exacerbated what is known as “unmet need” for family planning–the difference between the number of children women want and the number they have–and to the subsequent high number of unsafe abortions in Kenya.  Kenya faces a shortage of contraceptive supplies, in part because of the lower priority put on such health interventions by donors like the United States and in part because of pressure put on the government by the Catholic Church, U.S.-based fundamentalist groups, and anti-choice fundamentalists in the U.S. Congress.

Today, fully one quarter of married women ages 15 to 49 in Kenya want to space or limit births but have no access to family planning services.  The most recent data available show that in 2009, the United States spent $17.8 million on family planning services, as opposed to more than $530 million on HIV and AIDS.  (My point here is not to pit these two against each other–women are the majority of those infected by HIV and AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa–but rather to underscore how little priority essential family planning services receive.)  As a result of the lack of access to family planning, women have more children than they want or can afford, and in desperation resort to illegal abortion. Unsafe abortion in Kenya is widespread.  According to a 2011 report by the Kenya Medical Association, the Kenyan chapter of the Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA-K), the Ministry of Health and International Projects Assistance Services (IPAS):

[A]bout 300,000 abortions are performed in the country each year, causing an estimated 20,000 women and girls to be hospitalised with related complications. This translates into a daily ‘abortion rate’ of about 800 procedures – and the death of 2,600 women every year.

Now, as Reuters reports today, there is a severe drought in Kenya, and poor families with too many mouths to feed are selling–literally selling–their daughters in exchange for money for food.

Child marriage is commonplace in parts of Kenya.  The belief that girls contribute little to family economic security combines with the belief that they must be married off early to preserve their virginity (and the family’s honor) leads to the marriage of girls as young as nine years of age to men much older than themselves.

Drought has affected around 10 million people in the Horn of Africa. And in Kenya, young girls are being sold for as little as 15,000 Kenyan shillings or $168.

“If [the prospective husband] is wealthy, it can go up to 50,000 ($559),” said Ahmed.

Hunger drives the exchange, notes the Reuters article. “Prolonged drought in northern Kenya has pushed many families, like widow [Fatuma] Ahmed and her seven children, toward the outskirts of towns where they are more likely to get food and water.”

“A mother will take a 14-year-old girl out of school and sell her to a man — even an old man — to get money to give the other children food,” said a local chief. “Some households have 10 children and feeding those children is really hard.”

Enrolment in his local primary school has dropped to 210 children from 350 since the drought started to bite last year.

“Over a hundred have been removed because of hunger,” he said.

According to the United Nations, only one in five girls in North Eastern Province attend school.

Aid agency World Vision is unable to trace 400 of the 3,060 children it sponsors in the district. Some have been sent to stay with better-off relatives who can feed them. Some are working as maids in people’s houses or in food kiosks.

But others are married off “just to make sure that the rest of the family does not die from lack of food,” said Jacob Alemu, World Vision’s local program manager.

These girls will perpetuate a vicious cycle of early marriage, early and frequent childbearing, and poverty. Unless something changes, their daughters will have little education, marry early and bear more children than they desire, and have few or no economic opportunities outside of marriage. Girls and women will continue to become infected with HIV at unacceptable rates and women will continue to die needlessly from complications of unsafe abortion and childbirth.

U.S. policy would not of course have directly prevented the drought nor would it have completely prevented the problems of child marriage or unintended pregnancies. These are economic, social, environmental and human rights problems the first responsibility for which lies with a Kenyan government riddled with corruption and neglectful of women’s rights among other things.

But the U.S. could have gone a long way toward being part of the solution.  Instead, years on end of the Global Gag Rule have further weakened basic family planning programs in Kenya (and elsewhere), a misguided policy that the GOP now seeks to reinstate. And the failure to pass the International Child Marriage Act represents untold missed opportunities to improve the status of women and girls and build a more secure, prosperous and healthy Kenya, in which women have choices about their lives and that of their families.

Given the political realities of our political system, in which a fanatical anti-woman right wing seeks to quash any policy or funding that supports women’s health or rights and refuses even to address child marriage, and the President and much of the D.C.-based global health elite remains relatively silent on these issue for fear of offending said fanatical anti-woman faction, the U.S. global leadership rating deserves to be downgraded along with our credit rating.