In this series, Contending Modernities (CM) reflects on case studies of Catholic Relief Services’ (CRS) interreligious action (IRA) programs in various conflict zones around the world. The third featured case study of CRS’s work in Kenya brings to the fore various CM related conceptual queries, including the role of interreligious action for development through the modification of “authoritative” norms.
Of all the CRS case studies reviewed by Contending Modernities, the case study by Grace Ndugu of the CRS’ Dialogue and Action Project (DAP) in the Coastal region of Kenya offers the clearest examples of the intersections between interreligious action and an expansive development approach. In particular, the case highlights the relevance of inter- and intrareligious interventions (or rather, interventions by key religious actors) to resist gender–based violence, female illiteracy and vulnerability to sexual exploitation, trafficking, and child marriage, while also recognizing that girls and women are not the only targets of such human rights violations and persistent conditions of insecurity.
According to Kenya’s Demographic and Health Survey of 2014, 22.9% of women aged 20-24 were married before the age of 18, and 4.4% before the age of 15. In addition, only 21.6% of women and girls aged 15-49 have completed primary school, and only 14.2% have completed secondary school; while 24.3% have never received formal education at all. Hence, important correlations can be established between levels of literacy and education and child marriages and other related practices. Likewise, a 2013 CRS Stakeholders Workshop clarified that the commercialization of marriage through the “dowry” functions as a poverty coping mechanism, further exposing crucial interrelations between child marriages and other gender-based discrimination and exploitation on the one hand and poverty on the other. Furthermore, a 2006 survey conducted by UNICEF and the Kenyan Government on sex tourism and exploitation of children in the Coastal region demonstrated that the effects of the interrelation between poverty, illiteracy and low levels of education, and gendered norms were compounded by the weak enforcement and communal ignorance of laws and policies related to child-protection. DAP focused on the Coastal region of Kenya because of its high incidence of child rights violations, including child marriage.
With this underlying analysis, CRS’s DAP (implemented from 2013-2016) involved accompanying the Coast Interfaith Council of Clerics (CICC) and the Catholic Diocese of Malindi (CDoM) in an effort to develop culturally-sensitive mechanisms and pathways for reducing the frequency of child marriage among vulnerable communities in the Coastal region. DAP’s interreligious and multi-sectoral approach was designed to engage a variety of key stakeholders including child protection government offices, interreligious leaders, and schools. The program engaged a total of 60 clerics and traditional elders from the Muslim, Christian (Catholics, mainstream Protestants under the umbrella of the National Council of Churches of Kenya, Evangelical Association of Kenya, and the Organization of Africa-Instituted churches), Hindu (Council of Kenya), and traditionalist religions (Kaya traditionalists). These leaders, all members of the CICC, coordinated through DAP to act against the prevalent practice of child marriage and to mobilize other community stakeholders toward the same end.
Recognizing the aforementioned correlations between poverty and child marriage, DAP focused on addressing poverty by operating 52 interreligious Saving and Lending Communities (SILC) groups, which included conversations on child rights in their weekly forums, as well as directing savings and loans toward retention of girls in school. DAP sought to cultivate child-driven child rights advocacy with 529 children in five primary schools’ peace clubs. Each peace club included Muslim and Christian “chaplains,” underscoring the interreligious dimensions of this program and the desire to implant a culture of peace and religious tolerance. DAP’s theory of change targets multiple mechanisms to address child marriage. Firstly, it argues that if children are equipped with the knowledge, skills, and support to advocate for their own rights against child marriage, they will be more empowered to do so. Secondly, if religious and traditional leaders strategize and coordinate ways of engaging parents and community members around traditional and religious teachings and values that support protection of children, DAP argues that families will recur to child marriage less often. Lastly, if governmental and legal mechanisms are better coordinated to enforce the legal protections of children, then child marriage in the target region will be reduced. The emphasis on engaging religious teachings and traditional praxis reflects DAP’s value-based, intra- and inter-faith approach to child rights combined with its other focus on child-driven advocacy through peace clubs and the SILC groups. The 60 CICC members were trained by the government and the DAP team in child abuse reporting protocol, confidentiality, child rights paralegal action, lobbying and advocacy skills, the use of anonymous boxes installed in schools, and the creation of a child helpline. The latter enabled 46 cases to be reported by children.
One unintended outcome of the implementation of DAP’s interreligious approach to child protection was an increase in CICC’s membership and regular monthly interactions in Lamu, the Tana Delta, and Malindi. These increased interactions could enhance social cohesion and religious tolerance, and reflect a move toward deepening interreligious capacity. However, as Ndugu reflects in her report, not all clerics and elders who participated in DAP contributed in the same way. In particular, those who joined later were not always resilient to exclusivist forces that perceived them as “traitors” or “spies” for interacting with the “other”—all labels relevant to the Kenyan landscape of mistrust and suspicion in the wake of terrorism. Hence, the program needed a clearer focus on strengthening intra- and inter-religious capacity.
Nonetheless, the case study demonstrates an instance where the instrumentality of religious leaders and traditional elders is not only assessed in terms of their relative credibility and traction within their respective community. In the case of DAP, the effectiveness of these leaders and elders is also intimately related to their ability to speak authoritatively within their traditions, employing appropriate resources and interpretive lenses, in order to counter the prevailing praxis of child marriage and related abuses. The value-based approach, wherein interreligious action meant strategically coordinating value-based engagement of religious leaders and elders with various stakeholders across a variety of communities in order to reduce child marriage, also involved training these leaders to navigate legal and other official mechanisms for child advocacy and protection. Hence, these (male) leaders’ ability to leverage their social and cultural location for promoting child protection was reinforced through expanding their skills and scope of activism.
DAP’s effectiveness, however, depends not only on interreligious action around the legal protection of children. It depends, additionally, on a coordinated cross-sectoral effort where interreligious cooperation and religio-cultural intervention is but one facet of a broader campaign, involving governmental agencies, legal mechanisms, and children’s own empowerment through knowledge of their rights. In the final analysis, this case of interreligious action brings to the fore the relevance of inter- and intra-religious action and dialogue in mobilizing and enabling, in a culturally-sensitive manner, changes to practices deemed “traditional” and thus authoritative. The case also deeply conveys the intersections between under-development, insecurity, and exploitation of vulnerable populations.
 Republic of Kenya, Demographic and Health Survey 2014, (December 2015). https://dhsprogram.com/pubs/pdf/FR308/FR308.pdf
 UNICEF and Republic of Kenya, The Extent and Effect of Sex Tourism and Sexual Exploitation of Children on the Kenyan Coast, Pre-Publication Edition. (December 2016). http://lastradainternational.org/lsidocs/418%20extent_n_efect_1007.pdf
Photo credit: Philip Laubner/CRS