CHANTALLE OKONDO

"Mental health doesn’t happen in a vacuum and highlighting the importance of looking at the wider impacts of child marriage is key."

Chantalle Okondo Pic_edited.jpg
 

Firstly, how did you enter this field?

It was by chance; my background is in public health and nutrition and I was working in Western Kenya for Women’s Rights and Empowerment Partnerships in Africa (WREPA). We noticed that quite a few of our project beneficiaries were young women who ended up in early marriages and generally had low self-esteem and very few options to seek support both within and outside their family units. We partnered with Rozaria Memorial Trust to do a scoping study on the mental health consequences of child marriage in Kenya and Zimbabwe and it was alarming, and sad to hear these young women’s stories and the harsh conditions in which they live in.


Why are you are interested in the mental health effects of child marriage?

Its cliche to say but mental health is one of those invisible issues that in our settings are rarely addressed unless the symptoms are very severe. In rural areas, even when people exhibit these severe symptoms, accessing appropriate health care and support is nearly impossible. With child marriage, a lot of girls and women I interacted with spoke of having feelings of helplessness, that they were in a situation with little avenue for recourse or even opportunities to dream of a better life. The women get stuck in becoming mothers, wives and their needs as individuals become internalised and are secondary to everybody else in the homestead. I became interested because it seemed to be a pattern that was repeating itself, from mothers to daughters to granddaughters all having similar experiences. I felt that this was a field that was little understood or addressed especially in rural settings.


Can you tell us about some of the misconceptions (if any) that may exist when it comes to mental health and child marriage?

Most people view mental health as a curse, if you are not able to handle the burdens of life then you are not a strong person and/or someone has wished ill on you and your family. There is also the assumption that because poverty is one of the main drivers of child or early marriages, that if we addressed poverty and a lack of education then people’s mental health would immediately improve. If one had money, then issues like anxiety, depression, or low self-esteem etc, would go away.


How do you think we could raise awareness on the topic of mental health consequences of child marriage in general?

Bringing these stories to the forefront, showcasing the mental health issues facing girls and women in child marriages. In western countries it’s become normalised to seek care or therapy when you are having a hard time. You have public figures openly talking about their own mental health struggles; hence we should try to reach these girls and women in child marriages and support them to speak openly not just in their own communities but nationally and globally.Perhaps we can package these in easy to digest format, infographics


How do you think other people could contribute and help make a difference?

Everyone has important role to play - women, parents and communities need to understand these issues and the stigma that is attached to them and how to support each other. Policy makers at the local and national level need to enforce laws that prevent these harmful practices from continuing, offer education, mental health and social support services to help families invest in their daughters in a positive and fulfilling way. Donors also need to start investing in this area and ensuring that their funds are reaching the right people, are contextually relevant and involve local stakeholders in decision making. We should put equal focus on preventing and supporting mental health issues.


How do you think we could encourage future research in this field?

Perhaps looking at the intersectionality of this field with overall health, education, empowerment, and socio-economic outcomes. It needs to be a combination of advocacy at the local, national, and global levels, highlighting stories of girls and women that have gone through child marriage and how their life experiences have shaped them. Bringing awareness to these issues, not just to researchers and academics but parents, local community leaders, health care workers, policy makers and donors. Let us advocate for research that is relevant and of importance to all stakeholders.

 

Chantalle Okondo, MSPH, is a researcher with over seven years experience in gender, women's rights, public health, maternal and child health. She is passionate about elevating young women's voices, their creativity, resourcefulness and resilience