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Ethnographic Empathy and the Social Context of Rights: “Rescuing” Maasai Girls from Early Marriage


  • Caroline S. Archambault

    1. Faculty of Geosciences, International Development Studies, and University College Utrecht, 3584 CS Utrecht, The Netherlands;
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ABSTRACT  Esther is one of many young Maasai girls in Kenya “rescued” from early marriage. Her story is conventionally portrayed (trans)nationally and locally as a struggle between conservative pastoral patriarchs and the individual right of young girls to an education. I offer an ethnographic contextualization of the underlying factors giving rise to practices of early marriage, among the Maasai in Enkop, highlighting the contemporary predicaments of pastoralism in the face of population growth, climactic instability, and land-tenure reform and the insecurities and challenges around formal education. Through the intimate portrayal of Esther's case, early marriage is situated not as a relic of tradition and malicious patriarchy but, rather, as a contemporary adaptation to livelihood insecurity. I illustrate how prevailing concepts of “tradition,”“culture,”“victimhood,” and “collective rights” in human rights theory obscure important structural factors that give rise to early marriage and deflect attention from effective policy initiatives.