Several years ago, 70-year-old Annah Minyarit could not associate herself nor even imagine allowing her sons to marry uncircumcised girls who were considered ‘immature’ according to the cultures of many pastoral communities.
In an exclusive interview with KNA at her Kantana home in Laikipia North Sub County, Minyarit says she was born at time when Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) was a must rite of passage among her community for one to transition into adulthood. Being the norm, she therefore saw nothing wrong with it, having herself undergone the heinous practice.
”The uncircumcised could not be allowed to undergo certain rituals in the community like moving from one age set to another,” Minyarit says through an interpreter due to language barrier between her and this reporter.
In a shocking revelation, she further points out that in their old days, when ‘uncut’ women gave birth to boys, the children were not allowed to freely interact with their counterparts due to the stigma of their mothers’ status. Besides, their mothers would still be considered Ntitos (young girls) no matter how old they were.
”For those who were uncut, they would be forced to undergo the cut when giving birth so that their children could be accepted by the community,” Minyarit reveals.
She alleges that circumcised girls brought honour and respect to the family and were less prone to committing adultery due to reduced sexual desires.
It’s a decades’ old cultural belief that has perennially seen many young girls drop out of school and get married off early due to unplanned teenage pregnancies, especially at the height of Covid-19 pandemic.
Data presented to the Anti-FGM board recently by Laikipia North health official Shuel Simon revealed that about 3,495 teenage pregnancies were recorded between January and October 2021.
Laikipia North Sub-county was the most affected with a 44.2 percentage rate while Laikipia West recorded 33.1 per cent and Laikipia East 22.7 per cent respectively.
However, despite her strong stand on cultural beliefs, Minyarit says, they have accepted the changing dynamics of modern society and they no longer have control on how their children choose to live their lives.
”Government has contributed to eradication of FGM by developing strict measures against anyone found culpable of performing the rite, previously, we didn’t know it was wrong,’ she notes.
Minyarit is among hundreds of residents of the far-flung remote areas of Laikipia North sub-county who are fast changing their perceptions regarding FGM.
17-year-old Ole Quiyan (not her real name), says most of her peers were forced to undergo the female cut but her father has vowed to protect her from the jaws of the outdated culture.
“FGM is illegal and my friends are mostly forced to undergo the cut by their parents. They fear going against their parents or the wishes of the community. They do not have a voice to say no,” said Ole Quiyan, adding her family is educated and hence doesn’t believe in some cultural beliefs.
For Benson Meri, a Maasai moran and father of one, education has demystified the myths that uncut girls could lead to their families being befallen by a curse.
Fredrick Marima, a traditional healer from Kantana echoes Meri’s sentiments saying with education, girls were now empowered and could not be forced to undergo FGM in order to get suitors or for them to be accepted by the society.
Marima adds that they have even allowed their daughters to get married in other communities away from home.
Rumano Minyarit, a pastor from Kantana, says as a religious organization, they have taken the initiative to sensitize communities in the remote areas of Laikipia north sub-county on the health complications associated with FGM.
”FGM is not even in the bible, it was our own creation. However, the practice is slowly fading away. Everyone has started appreciating it is bad to practice FGM, with the help of the local administration we will uproot FGM completely,” says Pastor Minyarit.
He reveals the community elders had held a sanctification ceremony to facilitate the marrying of uncircumcised girls in their community, which he says was a major milestone in the fight against the outlawed practice.
Former Laikipia County Government Community Development Officer Moses Oleresho who hails from the Maa community says through education empowerment, morans are increasingly refusing to marry girls who are circumcised. However, their uneducated counterparts still strongly hold that marrying uncircumcised girls is a taboo.
”Education has helped us move away from outdated cultural beliefs. However, it is sad that the uneducated people strongly believe in the retrogressive culture,” said Oleresho.
He laments that about 70 per cent pastoralists who live in the interior areas and move from one place to another in search of pasture and water are still secretly practicing FGM.
Ms. Esther Kuraru, an FGM survivor who recently won the Head of State Commendation (HSC) for her fight against FGM among the Maa community, says that more needs to be done to encourage pastoralist communities to embrace Zero tolerance against Female Genital Mutilation.
”We have not exhausted the emotional effects of FGM survivors. I speak about FGM hoping to be a voice for the girls and highlight the dangers of the ‘cut’ so that no one can go through what I experienced. The dignity of girls from Laikipia North should be upheld,” she said.
”I strongly condemn those who belief that uncut girls can’t be married. Actually they make good wives and have a place in this society just like any other girl,” she said.
Ms. Kuraru revealed that FGM is still rampant in areas like Saaloi, Karuja and Silele Moile, in Makurian sub location and called for increased awareness by stakeholders.
The government had vowed to end FGM by this year, but some communities in Kenya were still practicing the vice.
Doldol Sub County Hospital Medical Officer in charge Dr. David Mwangi painted a grim picture on the prevalence of FGM in the areas surrounding Doldol town where it is conducted in secret.
”I would say the whole society contributes to FGM. Being a cultural rite of passage, parents expect their girls to undergo the cut for them to be considered ”mature”,” said Dr Mwangi, adding that FGM is greatly pegged on marriage.
He further noted that some girls undergo the cut due to peer pressure and the need to be accepted by the community.
”Community leadership tends to overlook the practice and cover it up such that it is almost impossible to know when and where it is being conducted,” he said.
Dr. Mwangi says that they notice scars of FGM in about 80 per cent of the deliveries done at the hospital every month.
“An average of 20 to 30 hospital deliveries in a month could be a tip of an iceberg without factoring in home deliveries,” said Dr. Mwangi.
He says FGM which involves the partial or total removal of female genitalia, usually results in complications like obstructed labour due to the narrowed birth canal, post-partum hemorrhage and vesicovaginal fistula.
Vesicovaginal fistula is a condition where a mother can’t control her bowels.
“Obstructed labour is a major complication of teenage pregnancy and in addition to all other complications. Such women tend to suffer psychological trauma,” decried Dr. Mwangi.
“Due to the sharing of the same instruments used to circumcise the girls, there is also a high risk of blood transmitted infections such as HIV and Hepatitis B,” he noted.
Laikipia County Commissioner Joseph Kanyiri who spoke to KNA said there was no proper data on FGM victims, however, the government has imposed heavy penalties for those found practicing FGM including life imprisonment.
“Our local administration including chiefs, and churches sensitize residents on the dangers of engaging in FGM with an aim of ending the abuse of our girls,” said the County Commissioner adding that children have the right to good health and education.
Kanyiri called on men to be responsible and not to sexually abuse young girls which could lead to unwanted pregnancies and spread of sexually transmitted diseases.
“There can’t be an agreement between a minor and adult. FGM and early child marriages is a sensitive topic here in Laikipia and I call upon everyone to take part in creating awareness,” he noted.
County Chief Officer in charge of Gender and Education Evans Kamau said the 2018-2022 education strategic plan aimed at identifying and addressing the challenges and gaps in the education sector in the region.
“We are working with stakeholders to sensitize our people on the alternative rite of passage and demystify the myth that girls become adults by going through FGM,” noted the Chief Officer.
Kamau reveals that the devolved unit had increased Early Child Development Education (ECDEs) institutions from 436 to 442 in 2020 with an aim of strengthening literacy levels among the pastoralist communities.
To eradicate poverty which is a major contributor to FGM, Kamau says, they empower residents through education and urge them to practice farming as an alternative source of livelihood in bid to curb early marriages among the pastoralist communities.
A study conducted by UNICEF in 2021 shows that an estimated 200 million girls and women have been subjected to some form of FGM globally and 68million more risk undergoing the cut by 2030.
The study further reveals that economic hardship attributed to Covid-19 virus was likely to trigger FGM cases.
By Muturi Mwangi