- - Monday, October 10, 2016

SAMBURU, Kenya — In this remote, deeply traditional corner of north-central Kenya, Faith Lekupanai sits on a stone, her baby ensconced in her arms, resting her tiny frame against the only tree stump on her homestead and talking about her child.

Miss Lekupanai, 14, has a baby as a result of being “beaded” — a common practice among the Samburu community living in this region. In the semi-nomadic tribe’s tradition, a close family relative will approach a girl’s parents with red Samburu beads and place the necklace around the girl’s neck on behalf of a warrior from the tribe. When that happens, the warrior can engage in sexual intercourse with the girl — some as young as 6 — even when the warrior does not intend to marry her.

“I was beaded when I was 7 years of age,” said Miss Lekupanai, who is colorfully dressed in a red shawl, bright beaded necklaces and a headdress. “I began immediately having sex with a warrior who was 15 years my senior. It was very painful, but you can’t refuse. Our culture dictates such behavior.”

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Now these girls are getting help from an unexpected quarter: Activists led by some warriors are stepping up to demand an end to the tradition.

John Leadismo, a Maasai warrior, is leading the fight against beading.

“We cannot allow this practice to continue hurting our young girls as we watch,” he said. “Most of these girls are traumatized, and some end up dying during the abortion procedure.

“We will respect our culture as Samburu people, but we are not going to allow cultural practices [that hurt] our people to continue,” he said.

Josephine Kulea, 30, has gained international attention for her efforts running the Samburu Girls Foundation to curb the practice of beading. The foundation is credited with helping over 1,000 girls in Kenya and other African countries escape forced marriages.

The practice “is dying out around the cities because more people there have embraced education,” she told the website News Deeply. “But there are a few other areas where it is still very common, and as much as we try to spread awareness that it’s wrong, people feel it’s still part of our culture. Some girls feel it makes them beautiful because someone has given them these beads.”

Miss Lekupanai’s story is common, and thousands of Samburu girls who are ineligible to be married have been beaded in the dry heartland of northern Kenya, 350 miles from the capital, Nairobi.

It’s a paradox: The intricately beaded necklaces have become a virtual symbol of modern Kenya, but they also have come to mean hardship and regret for many Samburu girls.

After a girl is beaded, her mother builds a small hut outside their home where the male relative or warrior visits the beaded girl to engage in sexual activity at any time. The practice is cherished, although pregnancy as a result is not.

“The sad thing with this practice is that you are not allowed to get pregnant, and yet there are no preventive measures,” Miss Lekupanai said. “However, in the end, most girls get pregnant and the problems begin.”

Pregnant girls are forced to abort in crude and makeshift ways because access to health care is minimal.

“I almost died trying to abort three pregnancies,” Miss Lekupanai said. “The father of these [aborted] babies later abandoned me and looked for another small girl, whom he then beaded.”

If the pregnancies are carried to full term, the girls are forced to abandon their babies in the bush to be eaten by wild animals. A baby born out of wedlock is an outcast.

“I left my baby along the Ewaso Ng’iro river so that lions could eat it,” said 20-year-old Josper, who was 12 when she killed her child. “It hurts me a lot when I remember what I did, but I was advised by the elders to do it.”

In spite of the movement to end beading, Samburu elders are fueling the practice.

James Lesimate, 78, argues that beading has helped prevent promiscuity among girls in the region, a narrative that is supported by every elder in the community.

“We need to respect and protect our culture,” he said. “There is no way we are going to abandon this practice of beading, because it is part of us.”

Some women lament the practice.

“I can’t give birth. I can’t bear a child,” said Joyce Lenatilia, who had two abortions by age 12. “I was told that I might have terminated both pregnancies with the use of strong herbs, and so I can’t give birth again.

“I’m now an outcast, and everyone ridicules me,” she said. “I can’t talk to other women since I have no child. I’m now living alone without a child, and nobody wants to marry me.”

Mr. Leadismo said beading can spread HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. He also notes that scores of women are unable to bear children because of damage to their reproductive systems from multiple abortions.

With the help of a local charity called the Samburu Girls Foundation as well as the Pastoralist Child Foundation, some girls have become aware of their rights and are trying to resist the practice.

The foundations have rescued hundreds of girls and are helping them go to school to find ways to earn a living after being shunned by their communities.

The activists have also managed to educate some elders.

As a result, Miss Lekupanai was able to keep her child.

“I was allowed to carry my last pregnancy to full term after elders and warriors were educated on the need to respect our rights,” she said. “I’m now happy — I have a child.”

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