LONDON, Nov 18 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A Kenyan activist called on Wednesday for an end to the "evil and horrendous" sexual enslavement of children among northern pastoralist communities, a practice that often leads to unwanted pregnancies, forced abortions and infanticide.
In a tradition known as "beading", men from the Samburu and Rendille communities give young girls large red bead necklaces that effectively books them for sex, said Josephine Kulea who runs the Samburu Girls Foundation to rescue girls at risk.
Girls are usually aged 8 to 12 when they are beaded and taken out of school, she said. If they become pregnant they are often forced to have abortions, risking their lives and fertility. Any babies are taken away and even killed.
"It's wrong, it's evil. The girls have no choice. It's sexual enslavement and a violation of the child's rights," said Kulea on the sidelines of the Trust Women conference on women's rights and trafficking run by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"Some girls when they refuse to accept the necklace are beaten up. Some girls die during crude abortions," added Kulea, 30, who has received death threats for her work to end beading, child marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM).
Although FGM is illegal in Kenya, it is almost universal among the Samburu community who see it as a pre-requisite for marriage. Early marriage is also common.
Kulea, whose work was praised by President Barack Obama during a visit to Kenya in July, said her foundation had rescued 1,000 girls since 2012 and put them in boarding schools around the country. Her dream is to build her own school.
Kenya has good child protection laws but they are poorly enforced, Kulea said, adding that local politicians were too scared to speak out for fear of losing votes.
"Beading is declining but not at the rate we would like. It's just horrendous. You cannot believe it is happening in the 21st century," said Kulea, who grew up seeing many friends and family members beaded.
Six years ago Kulea had her uncle arrested for trying to marry off her two cousins aged 10 and seven.
"My uncle was put in prison. The elders were furious because they said I was interfering with my culture and they put a curse on me - it was meant to kill me," said Kulea, wearing her traditional dress, including bold, colourful bead earrings, collar and headband and a red and black check shawl.
"I've also had death threats, but it just makes me want to do more," added Kulea, who rescues girls aided by the police.
The foundation uses community radio to increase awareness of harmful practices and works with religious leaders, community leaders and schools, believing education is the solution.
"If girls go to school they can learn the harmful effects of what they are going through and say no. They can get better jobs and provide a better future for their own children," she said.
(Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)