Authorities in Tana River County are investigating claims that young girls are being married off for food and cash as families struggle to survive amid the raging drought.
The region’s education director James Nyagah revealed that his officers are pursuing an old man who married a four-year-old girl in Reketa village, Tana Delta.
"The drought has worsened the situation, the population of girls in schools is dropping fast," he said.
Mr Nyagah noted that 10 girls at Reketa Primary School are reportedly pregnant and may soon be married off in their state.
At Miticharaka Primary School, 25 girls are pregnant with nearly half the number said to be waiting to be married off.
Adam Gurka, an elder in Tana Delta, said at least 20 girls below the age of 17 have been married off due to the dry season to rich elderly men.
"At such a time the bride price for the young girls is low. Elderly men target vulnerable families," he said. Parents are given10 to 20 goats and five cows before giving away the young girls.
The grooms are usually aged between 45 and 80. "Their offer is difficult to turn down if you imagine the number of livestock you have lost to the drought. All the parents who are approached give in," said Gurka.
Ralia Hassan, an activist from Kalkacha village, said fathers are at the centre of the practice.
"When there is nothing else to sell during such calamity, the girl child becomes the item of trade, and this has to stop," she said.
Fatma Hassan from Abaganda village is among those who have paid the price of drought. She was married off to a 72-year-old man in 2016 when she was 14. Her father had then lost all his 17 cows to drought.
The situation threatened lives at their home thus when her father was approached with the offer, he did not think twice.
“He took it, all I can remember is my mother asking me to prepare I was going to have a big wedding,” she said.
She was not alone, many other parents had considered the offers. That year, she notes, more than 20 girls were married to old men in one month.
In 2018, when drought struck, several girls were similarly married off.
County children’s officer Daniel Waiti said he has handled 1,500 child abuse cases between January and October. The cases range from child labour, early marriages to defilement.
The children officer said parents have abdicated their responsibilities to provide for their children.
A report by the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (Unicef) published this year reveals that at least 23,000 children in Tana River are missing from schools.
Mohammed Walihye, an elder in Tana Delta, said this will help track the girls.
"Unless we do it, we are going to remain with only boys in schools, we must be vigilant as elders .”
County commissioner Mbogai Rioba said government agencies, Unicef and other organisations are working round the clock to ensure that some 2,000 girls are rescued from the shackles of misery.
"We shall trace them, and make sure that if they are in marriage, we arrest the perpetrators," he said.
He observed that monthly stipend to families and insurance compensations have played a good part in averting cases of early marriage.
"We have so far supplied drought pellets, and we will soon start with relief food. There is no reason for a parent to trade off their child for anything," he says.