In rural Kenya, a group of strong-willed women is giving traumatised young runaways a second chance at life.
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 ran away.”
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 or food.
“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, twitching bundle and asked: “What are you doing here all alone?”
A second chance
Two 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.
Chepution 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.”
Her 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 old.
“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 Network
This 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 poverty.
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, Patrick Longureruk.
Champion against FGM
According 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 against FGM.
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% by 2020.
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 throughout Kenya.
“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 safety
The 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.
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 herself.
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.”
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.
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 the men.
“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).
• View the complete web documentary at uncutproject.org/en
Emanuela Zuccalà is a freelance journalist, writer and filmmaker experienced in women’s rights. Her work has been published, among others, by El País, Worldcrunch, Mail&Guardian, D-Repubblica. In 2012 she won the Press Freedom Award by Reporters Sans Frontières. Her documentary movie Just To Let You Know That I’m Alive has been awarded prizes by several international film festivals, such as the Margaret Mead in New York City and the Aan Korb of the Bbc in 2014. In 2016 she launched Uncut, a multimedia project on female genital mutilations, which has been published in 7 countries in Africa and Europe, and won 15 journalism and documentary awards. Her latest multimedia project is Crossing the River, about maternal mortality in Sub-Saharan Africa. Her books include Sopravvissuta ad Auschwitz. Liliana Segre, una delle ultime testimoni della Shoah (Paoline Editoriale Libri, 2013), Donne che vorresti conoscere (Infinito, 2014), and Giardino Atomico, an investigative reportage about the social effects of the Chernobyl disaster (Infinito, 2017).