Janet has hard, suspicious eyes
that suddenly break into soft
smiles. At 14, she is already
enjoying her second life, telling
us about it with the pride
of someone who has fought hard to
write her own destiny.
"My parents had arranged a marriage
for me with a 50-year-old
man," she begins. "Preparations
for my circumcision ceremony had
begun. I remembered how my sister
had bled and cried after the cut. So I
A tall, slender girl, she ran into the
forests of Baringo County in Western
Kenya wearing only slippers, and
finally stopped after 150km and six
days without a clear destination
"I drank from water springs. At
night I would climb trees to escape
attack." She would have made it
to Uganda if she hadn't collapsed
before reaching the border in the
marketplace in Kongelai, a rural settlement
in West Pokot County.
While closing down their stall as
night fell, a woman and a young girl
noticed the frightened, dirty, twigthin
bundle and asked: "What are
you doing here all alone?"
A second chanceTwo years have passed since then
and now Janet has become the fifth
daughter of Theresa Chepution, the
widow who sold fruit at the market.
After giving her a good reviving
and cleansing at the river, Chepution
gave Janet a uniform and sent her to
school because she couldn't bear the
fact that she was illiterate at her age.
And Janet could never have imagined
that such a rigorous yet loving
countrywoman would understand
the core of her distress.
had been subjected to the same fate
Janet had been able to dodge: married
at a young age, her first two children
were stillborn because infibulation
(the surgical removal of the
clitoris and the stitching up of the
vulva) had rendered her tissues rigid.
"I suffered a great deal," she tells
us under the shade of her stilt houses
for maize. "So I didn't have my
daughters cut. Listening to Janet, my
pain [was] aroused at the thought
of how much our people's traditions
have wounded us."
Traditional practiceHer people are the Pokots, the predominant
ethnic group in Kenya's
Baringo and West Pokot counties,
who also live in the Karamoja region
in Uganda that is visible just behind
the hills from Kongelai.
The Pokots are seminomadic
pastoralists, with about 600 000 of
their number residing in Kenya and
100 000 in Uganda, according to figures
from the national bureaus of
statistics in those countries. In the
past they have been at war with their
rivals, the Maasai and the Turkana,
and they are still obstinately
enclosed in a patriarchal society that
measures their daughters' worth by
the quantity of cattle their future
husbands will offer as a dowry.
The cutting and sewing up of the
vulva is the prenuptial ritual performed
to turn a young, immature
girl into a "real" woman who will
later lose her virginity when a goat's
horn is used to cut her open again on
her wedding night, and who will give
birth to a child before she is 15 years
A goat’s horn is used to cut a girl open on
her wedding night.
"According to Pokot culture, if you
are not circumcised you remain a
girl forever and are banned from all
female duties, including milking the
animals," Susan Krop (37) tries to
explain. Like Janet, she also resisted
forced marriage because she wanted
to finish primary school.
In Kongelai, she is one of only a
handful of women who, in addition
to the Pokot language, speak a little
English and perfect Kiswahili, the
official language in Kenya.
The Women's NetworkThis is also why she was elected
chair of the Women's Network,
which counts 103 active members
and 2 000 supporters scattered
among the manjata, the traditional
mud huts along the Suam River.
This female synergy here is fostered
by ActionAid, the only international
organisation to have advanced
into these remote, red-earthed areas.
Since 2012, the Women's Network
has been committed to educating
families on how harmful infibulation
is, and explaining that true
wealth is not measured by a dowry
in cattle, but by the peace of mind of
a girl who studies, and can cultivate
dreams and learn skills that will help
the entire community to shake off
Krop says she has been beaten by
furious fathers. "But if we were able
to convince the ngoroko, we'll be
able to convince everyone else too
within a few years," she says, smiling.
She is talking about the "warriors",
the young men who once
fought for control of the pastures.
They are extremely brutish and sexist,
yet some of them have decided to
join the Women's Network and have
accepted wives who are uncut. "They
are healthy, educated and improve
our lives," admits their spokesperson,
Champion against FGMAccording to Krop, the prevalence
of infibulated Pokot women
in Kongelai has dropped "from 80%
a few years ago to 50-70%". This figure
is still much higher than the
national average of 21% estimated by
the United Nations Children's Fund
in its 2016 female genital mutilation
(FGM) prevalence report, in a country
that is considered a champion
in sub-Saharan Africa in the battle
In fact, according to a 2014 survey
by the country's health ministry,
FGM has dropped by 22% in all of
Kenya since 2003, and a 2015 report
by the United Nations Population
Fund foresees a further drop of 40%
Two laws punish those who perform
the cut and those who support
it: the national Anti-FGM Board
was established to oversee the problem
and, since 2014, a prosecution
unit has been investigating cases
"But do you think the people
around here even know it exists?"
sighs Krop. She has come up with
a more effective strategy to spare girls from the bloody ritual within
these forsaken forests: despite their
own state of poverty, a group of foster
mothers, currently 28, takes into
their own homes girls fleeing the
mutat and early forced marriages.
"Rarely does a parent reclaim
them. When the girls refuse to get
married, the family loses the dowry
and the girl isn't worth anything. We
foster mothers support each other in
order to provide for them," she says.
A place of safetyThe Women's Network plans to
build a centre for the girls they cannot
put up in their own homes.
Currently, the dormitory of the local
school accommodates 30 little girls
and adolescents, all with a dark, troubled
look in their eyes.
There is Sharon, 15 years old,
who has been sold by her alcoholic
mother in exchange for a case of
liquor. "I ran away before I got cut.
I didn't want to leave school," whispers
the girl before looking down and
covering her eyes with her hand, crying
softly for a long time.
Sharon (above) fled her home to avoid mutilation
and a forced marriage to a
Krop will later tell us that Sharon's
mother had threatened to kill herself
if the girl did not bend to her will.
And she kept her promise, hanging
Mary Naikan Reuben offers us
some tea in the brick house she built
with her own hands. She is wearing
the traditional Pokot necklace worn
on special occasions: a disc-like ornament
made from coloured beads. She
is 38 years old and has been a widow
for 16 years.
"My husband was from another
ethnic group," she says. "No Pokot
wanted to marry me because I'm not
circumcised. In their eyes, I'm still a
little girl even though I'm already a
grandmother," she says, laughing.
Then she solemnly adds: "You can't
imagine how happy it makes me to
have complete control of my body."
Reuben took in a suffering girl who
had been raped by a neighbour when
she was seven. She also made room
for the girl's very fragile mother.
"With the support of the Women's
Network, we filed charges but the
rapist bribed the Kongelai police
with a few head of cattle," she tells us.
"We didn't give up and now the trial
is finally taking place in the town
of Kapenguria. It is very difficult to
attend the proceedings because the
courthouse is two hours' drive by car,
but this girl deserves justice."
Mary Naikan Reuben of the local
Women’s Network, explains
to men the consequences of
female genital mutilation on
Even Rebecca, who can't remember
whether she's 16 or 17 years old,
found a second mother among the
Kongelai women after she refused
to marry the man her parents had
imposed on her.
He had her beaten to a bloody pulp
and then he raped her and dumped
her almost lifeless body in the forest
— with a broken hip and pregnant
with a daughter. Rebecca now walks
with a limp.
Her face has the aged look brought
on by humiliating resignation, but
she breast-feeds and cuddles her
baby daughter, Naomi, with the
purest and most devoted love.
Rebecca (left) with her foster mother and daughter Naomi.
Rebecca was beaten and raped
when she refused to marry
the man chosen by her family.
Naomi was conceived during
In a small evangelical church in
the middle of the fields, Krop and
Reuben hold a lesson for a knot of
perplexed-looking men. When they
show them replicas of the uterus
and describe the effects of mutat, the
audience chortles in embarrassment.
But then, when faced with photographs
of vaginas disfigured by fistulae that developed after childbirth,
an almost pained silence falls over
"We had no idea," whispers an
older man, shaken by a shiver in the
scorching heat of Kongelai.
This is the first of a two-part series
on FGM in Kenya. Next week we
focus on the practice among the
Maasai. This article was produced
by the UNCUT project on female
genital mutilation with the support
of the Innovation in Development
Reporting Grant Programme (journalismgrants.
org) of the European
Journalism Centre, funded by the
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation,
and carried out in partnership with
ActionAid (actionaid.it) and the cultural
association Zona (zona.org/e).
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