There’s More to Life Than Cows: A Harrowing Escape from Child Marriage in Mwanga

When *Saitatia John was 13 years old, her father was hellbent on trying to marry her off for a second time. He had tried once before, in 2018, when Saitatia was 11 years old – but the little girl escaped under cover of night, hiding in bushes kilometers from home. This time in early 2020, with schools closed to halt the spread of COVID-19, her father saw a chance to try again. Saitatia and her family live in the small pastoralist village of Lembei in the Mwanga district of Kilimanjaro. While the name “Mwanga” is the Swahili word for light, Saitatia’s escape from her father’s homestead was dark, frightening, and almost cost her life.

“In May, when schools closed due to COVID, strange guests arrived after sundown. My father called me aside and told me he had good news – since schools were closed indefinitely, he had found someone to marry me. An elderly man, wealthy and wise. I was horrified.”

Knowing her father’s close friendship with the village chairperson, Saitatia knew she could not run to him. This time, she hid in a neighbour’s house until dusk. She trekked once again, blanketed by darkness and with the sounds of the odd hyena eerily in the distance, to the main road into Mwanga town. She had flashbacks to her first escape, when she had to hide at a safe house until her primary school exam results came out, and she could enrol in secondary school. Her father was keen to marry her off before this.

“I was lucky that I had stored away some money and could pay for a motorcycle to take me to my guardian’s house.”

The guardians reported the case to government authorities, who assigned social workers to deal with her father. After the first instance, he had promised not to marry her off again. This time, however, the social workers had the backing of a child protection committee formed by Action for Justice in Society (AJISO), funded by The Foundation for Civil Society (FCS). FCS has supported their work since 2016 through grant funding.

AJISO is a community-led organization working in Mwanga alongside local government authorities to protect women and children. FCS provided a grant to AJISO to establish child protection committees in Mwanga. Between June and December 2020, AJISO trained and empowered more than 50 stakeholders to found and serve on the child protection committees. The group included ward government leaders, district leaders, religious leaders, teachers, and students. The AJISO training covered the National Plan of Action to end Violence Against Children and Women, empowering the committee members to implement it effectively under a special program known as TUWALINDE – Let’s Protect Them.

With AJISO and government support, Saitatia was enrolled into the Dr. Asha-Rose Migiro Secondary School in Mwanga town. AJISO is paying for her private education here. Earlier in 2020, AJISO also worked with the exemplary school to develop a comprehensive child protection policy. Acting in collaboration with the Mwanga district government, they seek to make this policy standard among all schools. 

Saitatia’s story is not an isolated case. A childhood friend of hers was grabbed from school and married off while they were in the fourth grade. In traditional Maasai culture, girls as young as 11 years old can be married off to men chosen by their fathers, often in exchange for cattle and cash. Saitatia’s father envisioned a traditional life for her. The man he wanted to marry his daughter was in his late 60s and she would be bound to him forever with no permission to divorce, except in the most flagrant cases of physical abuse. Saitatia, however, envisioned a more modern life for herself: with school being the first step.

“The reason why I did not want to be married off, is that I wanted to get educated and set a good example for my younger sisters. I wanted a chance to change my society – help them understand that there is more to life than the cows we rear.” 

Through the training facilitated by AJISO, there has been increased responsiveness of local government authorities towards ensuring the protection of women and children’s rights. This is important. Previously, local government leaders felt they could not do anything in such cases, and let families handle the issue. Saitatia says this kind of refuge and support gives her life joy and meaning.

“I had to be brave to run away from an early forced marriage. And I tell young Maasai girls like me to be brave if they want to get their education. There are safe places out there. There are good people out there working to help us. I was brave but your support made my bravery stronger.”