Singing and dancing as she performs in a school assembly, Younis looks for all the world like a typical Kenyan teenager, with a beaming smile and a grey and maroon uniform.
There’s little outward clue to the trauma she’s already been through in her 13 short years. When she was just nine years old, Younis’s parents arranged for her to marry a man old enough to be her grandfather, in accordance with local Samburu tradition.
The Samburu are an ancient Kenyan tribe pastoralist cattle herders, said to be “distant cousins” of the Maasai. Even to outsiders, their languages and customs are strikingly similar.
Younis and other girls like her have dared to break away from some of these traditions — child marriage, female genital mutilation and beading (the practice of promising girls to their male relatives for sex) –which are illegal in Kenya.
But in doing so they risk being disowned by their families and communities.
“When I was about nine years old, my father married me off to an old man who was 78 years old,” Younis explains, the memories of her harrowing experience still raw. “I went to his home and I stayed with him one week.
“He told me that I will be a wife but I was just innocent, I wanted to come to school. But that man wanted me to be a third wife. I told him, I will not be your wife, and he caned me.
“Then I heard that there is a woman who helps children. I came from Baragoi barefoot, I didn’t even have shoes that day. I came to Maralal … Kulea took me to [the] children’s office, she rescued me.”
There are eight other girls at Younis’s boarding school just like her; all have been brought to safety by Josephine Kulea and her Samburu Girls Foundation.
To these girls, and some 200 others across Kenya, Kulea is “Mama Kulea.” When their families refuse to have anything more to do with them, she takes the place of their mothers.
Kulea is fighting against the very Samburu cultural traditions she grew up with. She says she began asking questions about what was happening in her community after attending boarding school and studying for a nursing degree in a different part of the country.
“I realized we are the only ones doing FGM, female genital mutilation, the other communities [are] not doing it,” she explains. “I … came to realize that there are things that are not right and I need to make a difference, that’s how I started rescuing girls.”
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