“Josephine” is 12 years old and several months pregnant.
She’s a member of the Samburu tribe, living in a small village in a remote part of Isiolo in Kenya’s Eastern Province. The pre-teen, whose identity is being protected, claims she had sex with a relative — a rape sanctioned by the Samburu, through a practice called “beading.”
Intricate beaded necklaces are a symbol of the Kenyan nation. But to young Samburu girls, the necklaces are a symbol not of national pride, but something much darker, that can lead to rape, unwanted pregnancies — and even the deaths of newborns, according to activist Josephine Kulea and the Samburu tribe itself.
In “beading,” a close family relative will approach a girl’s parents with red Samburu beads and place the necklace around the girl’s neck.
“Effectively he has booked her,” says Kulea, a member of the Samburu herself. “It is like a (temporary) engagement, and he can then have sex with her.” Girls are also “beaded” as an early marriage promise by non-relatives.
Some girls who are “beaded” are no more than 6 years old. They are the focus of Kulea’s rescue mission, a trip to Isiolo she’s been planning for weeks.
Samburu culture dictates that girls be engaged to a relative, she says, and they are allowed to have sex with him. But “they are not allowed to get pregnant and there is no preventative measures,” she says. “At the end of the day, most girls get pregnant … and these (infants) end up dying or being killed or being given away.”
When they reach adulthood, Samburu girls will marry outside of their village, but taboo dictates the girls will never be able to marry if they keep their babies resulting from beading.
Some girls, she says, undergo a crude abortion before their pregnancy advances. Others hide their condition until it is too late for that. “They let them give birth, but only to kill these babies,” Kulea says.
If the girls are lucky, their babies are given away to strangers. “Most of these girls are traumatized,” Kulea says, and some get infections from the crude abortions.
Philip Lemantile, the father of 14-year-old Nasuto, says beading is aimed at stopping promiscuity among young girls.
“This is our culture,” he says. “It is part of us. And we have been practicing it, and we accept that these girls should be beaded, and sometimes the girls just get pregnant.”
Kulea calls that a bad cultural practice.
“For any change that comes by, we have to have a start,” she says. “And this is the start.”
But the start is traumatic for the Samburu, as the girls are taken away from their families and put in a shelter. Their babies are placed in orphanages.
Still, Kulea says, it’s better than staying.
“I just felt that it is wrong,” she says. “Something wrong is going on in my community. And that is where my passion began. And so I decided to help out the girls.”
Several African tribes consider female genital mutilation a right of passage for a young girl to become a women. Typically a girl is between the ages of 6 – 12 years old. It is recognized internationally as a violation against the human rights of women and young girls. Female genital mutilation (FGM) comprises all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. (http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs241/en/)
The day before a young girl gets married, she is pulled away and brought to a sacred area where all young girls cut. They use the same knife, same table, and nothing is considered ‘sanitary’. Nearly 30% of the girls are infected with a blood born decease, and many die from hemorrhaging. Once she is cut, she is given merely hours to heal and is brought to the alter to be married.
In ‘beading’, a family relative will present a young girls parents with a necklace of red Samburu beads and place them around the young girls neck. Red beads indicates engagement or early marriage promise. Some of the girls that are beaded are as young as 6 years old.
In their culture, they permit being engaged and a beaded by a relative. This grants that individual to have sex with the young females, but does not permit for them to have children. Yet, no protective measures are taken to prevent pregnancy. Some young girls undergo crude abortions or hide their conditions until its too late, in which they will let them give birth to only find out they must kill that child.