Migori County, Kenya: In a southwestern Kenyan village near the border with Tanzania, Grace Boke, a 19-year-old mother of three girls, lives with her wife – a woman who was unable to bear her own children.
They were married under “nyumba mboke”, a practice which allows for woman-to-woman unions, despite the fact that gay marriage is criminalised in Kenya.
But there is little love or romance in this marriage.
Boke is among hundreds of Kenyan surrogates who mostly live in poverty with their partners, who are desperate to have their own children.
The teenager, who speaks in Swahili and her local dialect, dropped out of school and married Pauline Gati after conceiving her first child out of wedlock.
She holds her nine-month-old daughter in their small mud house in Kibunto village, Kuria District. The baby has a skin infection and cries when nursing.
“My father forced me to undergo female genital mutilation (FGM) when I was very young, in class two, and immediately after that, I was involved with a man who made me pregnant and disappeared. My parents were very poor and decided to give me away for four cows to a woman with no children. She is now my partner,” Boke told Al Jazeera.
FGM, child marriage and woman-to-woman marriages are common in Kuria.
“My father later sold the cows and went for a drinking spree and never gave my mother any money from that. He later died,” said Boke.
“When I was welcomed in this home I was told that there was no farm to get any form of food, all she wanted was me to help her get children. This really made me worried but she insisted that we will struggle through thick and thin to get food for children.”
Boke and Gati struggle to feed the three children, who are all younger than five.
Gati said same-sex arranged marriage is culturally accepted so women who are unable to have children, or those who have not yet had a son, can fulfil societal expectations.
“My husband died and left me with no children after we had lived together for many years,” she said. “I was facing a lot of stigma from the community and was advised to get a young woman to help me get children.
“I do not have a farm because I ran away from where I used to stay. Here, a good Samaritan donated this small piece of land where we have this small two bedroom house. I then decided to marry Boke and gave out four cows. The children … will now be mine. I will have someone to take care of me when I grow old.”
Gati and Boke do day-labour jobs in farms to get by and say they and the children are used to sleeping hungry.
“[Boke] has no source of income,” said Gati. “She is supposed to rely on me entirely because the men who make her pregnant have no responsibility for these children. The men she meets are supposed to make her pregnant and walk free; we do not follow them … because we fear they may kill us or the babies.”
At Gwikonge village, also in Kuria, 48-year-old Gatatina Sinda lives with her eight children in a crumbling mud house.
One by one, the children come home for lunch. A seven-year-old complains that she is bored by eating sweet potatoes every day.
“I have no other food,” said Sinda. “My life is difficult because I was married here to an elderly woman who had no children and wanted me to get her children. She died, leaving me behind with these eight children. I struggle a lot to feed and educate them.
“I do not know where I will go with my children when this house falls. This nyumba mboke has brought me and my children a lot of misery.”
Melisa Nyabware, 41, is a mother of five and has HIV. Her father, an alcoholic, took her out of school to marry her to another woman.
“My father messed up my life just because of five cows. I am so bitter with him only that he is now dead. I could have taken him to court,” she told Al Jazeera.
“It is very difficult to have children then you have no one taking care of them. My partner was elderly when she took me in and later died. She was unable to provide support to me and my children. I have been living like a beggar.”
But Goceso, a local support group for women which offers some financial support, has given her some hope, she said.
Susan Maroa, Goceso’s chairperson, told Al Jazeera the group is unable to support all the victims of arranged marriages but “we try our best to help them”.
“This is a big problem here because children born have no proper family support and they end up languishing in poverty.”
Sammy Chacha, a chief in Kehancha, confirmed that nyumba mboke marriages have wreaked havoc on the community.
“This culture is deep-rooted among this community and therefore the young women and children born out of these arrangements suffer a lot. Parents … get carried away when they are offered few cows to give away their daughters,” he said.
Nyumba mboke unions are not constitutionally supported and therefore violate the rights of women and children, he explained.
“As local administration in this region, we discourage this practice but people do it behind our backs. We only get to hear about it when conflicts arise,” he said, adding that he is aware of at least 400 women being affected.
Local officials offer workshops and hold meetings to educate parents and advocate for adoption for families that want children.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), infertility affects 15 percent of reproductive-aged couples worldwide.
WHO demographic studies from 2004 have shown that in sub-Saharan Africa, more than 30 percent of women aged 25 to 49 suffer from secondary infertility, the failure to conceive after an initial first pregnancy.
According to Koigi Kamau, an associate professor in obstetrics and gynaecology, there are several causes of infertility among women in Kenya and other developing nations.
“Tubal blockage as a result of STI Infections, fibroids and post-abortion complications are some of the reasons behind infertility in women … Hormonal related [factors] also affect men.
“We now have technologies like IVF that can help infertile women have children, but they are very expensive for many local people to afford.”
Koigi advises couples to seek help as soon as they realise that they cannot conceive.
“This helps in dealing with the problem at early stages and gives higher chances to conceiving.”
But in many cases, the determination to have more children is difficult to overcome, even with workshops and efforts to educate, and keeps the practice of nyumba mboke alive.
Back in Kibunto village, despite being unable to afford the three daughters they already have, Gati now wants a son.
“[Boke] has to give me a baby boy among the girls; I cannot have only girls in this community,” she said. “I will lose respect.”