No country for young girls: Child marriage is a crime, don’t talk to me about culture

Friday September 28 2018

Schoolgirls.

Schoolgirls play during break. India now ranks alongside Africa as one the most dangerous places for girls to grow up in. PHOTO | NMG 

TEE NGUGI
By TEE NGUGI
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Each case of a 12- or 10-year-old girl yanked from school, circumcised and married off to an old man is the stuff of pure tragedy.

A few weeks ago, a report emerged of a girl who was murdered for refusing to be married to an elderly man. And recently, a 10-year-old was rescued from a marriage with a 60-year-old man.

These are just two cases of God-knows-how-many such obscenities are happening every day in this country. Fred Matiang’i, the Cabinet Secretary for security (who else in the moribund Cabinet?), addressed this issue at a public meeting in an area where these practices are rife. He described them as stupid and criminal, and told chiefs to crack down on perpetrators.

Hopefully, Matiangi’s angry denunciation of these crimes will lead to policy, programmes and legislation that will help us end these crimes sooner rather than later.

The abuse of children and women in the name of culture is not unique to Africa. In India, backward beliefs sanction all kinds of crimes against girls and women.

There are cases of foeticide, where mothers abort girl foetuses because girls are considered not only of less value but also costly to the family. Child marriages are endemic. Gang rape of women has reached crisis proportions.

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The brutal gang rape and murder of a student sometime back brought the magnitude and seriousness of rape in India to the attention of the international community. In the cities, women are regularly groped and sexually harassed. India now ranks alongside Africa as one the most dangerous places for girls to grow up in.

But there is a difference between how India has decided to address this epidemic of culture-based abuse of girls and women and our response here in Africa. Indian authorities as well as intellectuals speak out loudly against these abuses. Further, the state has taken an uncompromising stance with respect to these crimes.

After the rape and murder of the student, the state brought back the death penalty for this crime. In one metropolis, a special police unit has been formed to deal specifically with cases of sexual harassment on streets and public transport. The unit also receives and acts on complaints of sexual harassment including unsolicited phone calls.

Given the population and the severity of these kinds of crimes in India, there is still a long way to go.

But as of now, these so-called cultural crimes do not have a friend in the Indian state. The state has unmasked criminality disguised as culture. Indian intellectuals on their part offer no philosophical justification, intended or unintended, for these crimes, and are in fact vocal campaigners against these practices and beliefs.

In Kenya, and Africa by extension, officials and intellectuals continue to tiptoe around crimes committed in the name of culture (that is why Matiangi’s stance is so radical). There are two main reasons for this conspiracy of silence:

First, just as in the case of corruption before the recent crackdown, is lack of political will. The rural areas where these practices are rife are also vote-rich areas. Politicians think that an aggressive campaign against cultural abuse will cost them votes. To a Kenyan politician, people are just potential votes. His or her political strategy is not informed by values or ideology. Rather, it is shaped and driven by calculations of what to do or not to do in order to increase the vote tally at the next election.

With respect to cultural abuses, the calculation is to do nothing or, in some cases, encourage such behaviour by use of coded language. Cultural abuse becomes a community mobilising tool.

The second reason for the silence, especially from our intellectuals, is what Abiola Irele called our psychological complex as a formerly colonised people. His meaning is that we tend to look at African reality through the prism of our colonial experience. Thus behaviour or practice that is just plain wrong, even criminal as with culturally sanctioned abuse, is viewed within a larger battle between the colonising ideology and the response to it.

Because the colonising ideology claimed that Africa was backward, the counterclaim was that Africa had a humanist tradition. So these abuses present an ideological conundrum. They are best denied, ignored or reinterpreted.

But no society on earth can claim to have acquired humanist values naturally. These are fought for and protected by laws. A humanist tradition in Africa will only come into being once we end cultural abuse and establish true democracy.

Tee Ngugi is a social and political commentator based in Nairobi

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