The Nation (Nairobi)

5 July 2006

Kenya: Sex Slavery Big Business in Garissa

Nairobi — Fifteen-year-old Asha (not her real name) married a man she thought would be dependable and responsible, having got a job in the US. He had been proposed to her by her parents, but the wedding took place in his absence.

"I thought I was running away from poverty which, coupled with the harsh climate at home, had made life very difficult," says the woman from Garissa District in North Eastern Province.

She had, on the instruction of her parents, abandoned school to get married. The Somali husband who still works in the US, paid a dowry of $3,000 (about Sh219,000).

And the happy couple proceeded to organise a colourful wedding conducted by a local sheikh in line with the Islamic law. A marriage certificate was subsequently issued by the local kadhi.

But when the man arrived from the US, Asha says they did not get along well with each other for long. "He was not prepared to take me to the US where I later discovered he had another wife," she recalls.

"And during the few days we stayed together in Garissa Town, he would always attempt to have sex with other girls. I realised he was not my choice."

The couple have since had a divorce granted by the kadhi's court.

Hundreds of other young women in the district have found themselves in a similar predicament. Parents are literally selling their underage girls to men working abroad, especially in the US, Canada, the UK and South Africa.

What is tantamount to sex trade has become booming business for the residents. Nation investigations have established that the trade is spearheaded by middlemen in Kenya and abroad.

The broker in a foreign country enters into a deal with a man desiring to have sex with or marry a beautiful Somali girl in Kenya. The broker sends the message and money to a fellow middleman in Kenya with the instruction that he take video pictures of a group of girls either dancing or just walking around.

So the Kenyan broker goes to a function such as a wedding ceremony where dancing takes place, or he organises a dance and invites girls and young women.

The videotape is then sent to the broker in the foreign country who delivers it to the man who has hired him for the job.

And when the man finally identifies the girl of his choice, he asks the broker to deliver the message to her parents. The message is delivered through the Kenyan middleman, who informs the girl's parents and tells them how much money their daughter's suitor is willing to offer as the bride price. Of course, the negotiations take place without the girl's knowledge.

This is the point at which most parents find themselves victims of the conspiracy hatched out by the rich Somali young men who have found greener pastures overseas.

And, as it has turned out, the sole interest of these men is sex. "Of course, if one proposes to pay me more than Sh1 million to give him my daughter for marriage, I can't decline to take the offer," a parent says, adding that it is impossible to earn such big money in the region where poverty is endemic.

"Or how else can I raise a million shillings while my income is only from my few livestock?

The lure of instant wealth has forced some parents to withdraw their children from school and marry them off to the rich, young men. And they gladly pocket the loot, not giving a hoot whether or not they have seen the face of the men soon to have a relationship with their daughters.

At least one wedding ceremony is held in Garissa Town everyday between a Somali girl and a strange man who does not have to attend it, such as in Asha's case.

Most of the weddings which take place in the evening, begin with a convoy of vehicles which cruise around while hooting continuously. The honking alerts the local girls who flock to the venue for a dance in the hope of hitting a gold mine for the parents and possibly for herself.

A video picture of the procession and the entire bridal party is taken. Eventually, the motorcade of about 10 hired vehicles stops at the hired hall, hotel or private home where the wedding is to take place.

Although the wedding is somewhat private as only a few people are allowed in, all the Somali rites are performed, including slaughtering a camel or a bull.

And amid applause and cheers from the small crowd of relatives and friends, the bride is given a standing ovation as she says: "I do" to an absent bridegroom.

After the ceremony, the bride is led to her new matrimonial house where she will be forced to spend lonely nights until the groom arrives.

There are, however, other men who travel from abroad and conduct their weddings privately in big hotels in the town and leave immediately with their newly wedded wives.

But who really are these men? And why do they target only Somali girls?

The trade is peculiar to the Somalis, and has flourished for the past decade when the resettlement abroad of a large number of Somali refugees started, especially in the US and Canada.

This was after the political turmoil in the Horn of Africa country in the early 1990s, which saw the overthrow of President Mohammed Said Barre. This was also when Somalis started being settled in Kenya by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), especially at the Hagardere, Ifo and Dagahley camps in Garissa District.

Over the years, UNHCR has been resettling the refugees in the US and Canada as political instability continued to rock the country.

A civil rights activist in Nairobi says that some of the young men who have found their way to the US have limited education. "They are earning thousands of dollars in a month and they feel it is prestigious for them to marry all the beautiful women in the Somali community," he adds.

These young men, he says, want to be regarded as belonging to a higher class by compatriots at the refugee camps.

Thus, when they offer such a large amount of money to a poor family in Garissa, Wajir or Mandera as bride price, how many parents will turn it down?

The province is one of the poorest in Kenya as it is dry throughout the year, and the people depend entirely on livestock. And to compound their misery, the stocks were depleted by drought that ravaged the country last year, leaving most families depraved.

For such a family life has not been easy, making it easy prey for the predators from overseas.

Like in Asha's case, most of the relationships do not last long. The man may come for his wife after two or three years of marriage. And even if he comes immediately, as happened to Asha, he will first expose the naïve girl to all sorts of perversion.

And he may not necessarily continue making love to his bride who, in any case, is a stranger. Once he has his fill he moves over to the next victim. So the unions invariably end in separation.

As happened in Mandera Town early this year, a civil servant married off her two secondary school daughters to young Somalis working in the US. A resident recalls: "After the wedding, the men came and started doing all sorts of bad things to the girls. They would drink with them and mess up in public. The two guys then divorced the girls and went back to the US."

She explains that the girls could not go back to school as they had been stigmatised. This forced their mother to move to another area. The residents say the woman bought a house in a big town with the money paid to her as bride price.

Several other girls are said to have turned to prostitution after being dumped by their husbands in the US, Canada, the UK and South Africa. The same fate has befallen their colleagues in Garissa Town.

Some have hired rooms in the sprawling slums of Windsor, Bosnia and California on the outskirts of the town which they use as brothels.

The trade has become so sensitive in the region that few leaders wish to discuss it. It is the mayor, Mr Siyad Osman, who blew the whistle. He was quoted in the media as condemning parents who had fallen prey to the international cartel.

Since Mr Osman's remarks many other leaders have come out to condemn the sale of girls by needy parents.

But the local kadhi, Mr Osman Abdi, says that although he has of late handled several divorce cases, he does not see anything wrong with a marriage between a young woman and a wealthy man. "As long as there is love between a man a woman, marriage between the two is allowed by the Islamic law," he says. "It does not matter where such a marriage takes place - whether in Kenya or in London."

The Government has not taken action against the parents either. And provincial commissioner Kiritu Wamae defends the impassiveness: "No one has been able to prove that the girls are being sold out."

But Ms Fatuma Kinsi, the executive director of the lobby, Pastoralist Girls Initiative, is worried: "What worries me is that these people who come to marry our girls do not go to the VCT centres to be tested for their HIV/Aids status."

Additional reporting by Issa Hussein in Garissa

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