FGM: A cat and mouse game in rural Kenya

SIXTEEN year old Nancy Chebet (not her real names) knew something was wrong. Everybody was nice. Too nice for her liking. Her mother had bought her a new dress from the local second hand clothes market. She couldn’t remember the last time that had happened. Probably a few Decembers back. Her elder sister had plaited her hair with the new fashionable style. That, too, was a first. They were normally not in good terms with Miriam. Her father, who normally avoided her, smiled at her when she took him his smoking pipe. A weird kind of smile. But Chebet brushed all these from her mind. It had been a few days ago

And today, everything came rushing back when she saw a group of eerily dressed old women trekking to her grass-thatched house, their frail bodies covered in dilapidated traditional dresses, carrying strange looking paraphernalia

Chebet had been hearing a lot of noises from the village. But then it was high season for cultural events. A lot of pre-weddings were going on. Her favorite cousin had just been married the other weekend

And as the women stopped outside her house, it all came together. Her time had come

They started to sing. Deep throaty voices. Praising her courage. She peeped through the window. Just the women. She could see her mother smiling widely, as her peers surrounded her, dressing her in a new lesso. Miriam was smiling too

They had told her she was about to become a woman. That was a few weeks ago. Together with a few other girls, Chebet had attended a clandestine session deep in the forest, and warned never to tell anyone about it.

As she listened to the rusty voices outside, she knew this was wrong. In her high school, their peer education teacher had taught them about the dangers of female genital mutilation. She narrated to them what she had undergone through. At the end of the session tears had cascaded down her cheeks. And Chebet knew at that instance that she would not go through the ritual

But here they were

Her family had kept her from all the preparations. They had planned everything when she was away. Her mother had send her to visit her aunt who lived a few villages away

Although the government abolished the practice a few years ago, even going ahead to pass some laws against it, many communities still subject young girls to the ritual

“You cannot legislate against culture,” says Mzee Limo, an 88-year old village elder in Lomut village. “Our ancestors would be shocked.”

The most active communities have been playing a game of cat and mouse with the local administration. Among the Pokot, it is estimated that about 64% of girls aged between 10 and 17 years are circumcised. Government statistics show that only 18 percent and 26 percent of pregnant women in West Pokot have the recommended ANCs and deliver at hospitals respectively.

“These chiefs are also our people…how does the government expect them to go against cultures that have been there for ages?” adds Pius Lotodo, a local farmer. “And we know politicians cannot dare challenge us because they want our votes.”

Women are mandated to organize all the activities, keeping everything under wrap. The men only give their nods and the rest is done by the women. A few selected elderly women are trusted to undertake the ritual. Each family appreciates their effort by contributing some cash as well as giving them a goat or chicken if the family is poor. 

Female genital mutilation is a global public health concern, affecting at least an estimated 200 million girls and women with lifelong damage or complications, including severe pain, excessive bleeding, infections (such as tetanus), urinary problems, psychological problems and life-threatening circumstances for pregnant women and their babies during labour.

According to human rights defenders, the prevalence of FGM in West Pokot County is approximately 74 per cent based on a 2017 Unicef report. That number could be higher considering that most families conduct the ritual in secrecy

“During the workshop, we were told that we would gain respect from our families,” says Chebet. “Yes, I feel respected. Women greet me. Men approach me more often. But I have nothing to show for it.”

According to the Pokot culture, women who have undergone the ritual have higher chances of getting married. Their bride price is also higher compared to those who have not. Uncircumcised women, on the other hand, face ostracism and stigma. They are not allowed to mingle with circumcised women. They become social pariahs

“My parents don’t know this but they disrupted my dreams. I had big plans to join college and become a fashion designer. All that is now gone,” says Chebet

According to a World Health Organization (WHO) collaborative study that was published in the Lancet Medical Journal, women who have undergone FGM are more likely to experience difficulties during childbirth. Their babies also have higher chances of dying. 

“Most girls undergo the practice because of the myriad of myths peddled as facts by their families and communities,” says Natasha Letting, a women rights advocate. “When you are told that your family will access more opportunities in business or ascend the social circles…that your parents will become village leaders…then young girls feel obligated to support their families achieve such feats.”

Like Chebet, 13 other girls, all aged between 14 and 19 years, were received into the womanhood a week after completing the ritual, automatically making them eligible for marriage. Research shows that a mother who has been circumcised also runs the risk of having a stillbirth, as well as delivering babies with breathing complications who will require resuscitation after birth to allay brain damage and death.

“I might have been fooled this time, but what I know is that I won’t allow my girls to go through the same,” she adds. “I might be respected by the community but I feel disgusted, disfigured. Filthy, even.”