Halima Abdi remembers as if it was yesterday the day she learnt her mother-in-law had circumcised her two daughters without her consent.
“I had gone to Nairobi to see a friend. There were no cell phones then. Just the red Teleposta phone booths. When l called home to tell them that l had arrived safely in Nairobi, l got the shock of my life when my mother-in-law told me that my daughters had been cut that morning!
“I was crushed because I had no intention of circumcising my daughters especially after one of my friends developed a childbirth injury known as fistula. I made a vow that if I gave birth to another daughter she would not go through the cut.”
Halima now has six children—three daughters and three sons. She kept the vow she made to herself all those decades ago. She has made sure that her last born daughter, who is now six years old, has not undergone the cut. “My in-laws are not happy about the decision I made,” she says without regret.
She said she has had to contend with her husband who still strongly holds to traditional beliefs about FGM. “He always insists on instilling strong cultural values on our daughters. But some of these customs l do not agree with. I do not feel they are right. But on the issue of whether or not to cut our last born daughter, there was no negotiation. I stood my ground and that is why she is not cut,” she says.
BREAKING THE SILENCE
One of Halima’s daughters who turned eighteen two weeks ago has now joined Horn of Africa Development Initiative’s (HODI) Breaking the Silence, which is a training programme targeting teenage girls and their mothers where issues such as FGM are discussed in women-only forums moderated by women from the community.
It has not been an easy journey for Halima. She is passionate in her belief that educating girls will give them the confidence to accept themselves as they are and give them the confidence to stand up against the cultural practices such as FGM and early marriage that deny them their dignity.
“That is why l have made a lifelong commitment to protect and serve our girls”, says Halima at the sidelines of one of many community led events to discuss FGM held in Marsabit.
Halima, who is a peer counsellor at HODI — has spoken openly and frankly about why she is opposed to the practice. She speaks of the challenges and failures she has faced as a mother trying to protect her daughters from the cut and the friction that this caused in her marriage. When she speaks, other women in the meeting nod and murmur assent as they identify with some of the challenges she has faced.
As a peer counsellor, Halima reaches out to mothers and grandmothers to hold open and frank conversations about FGM and persuade them against the practice.
“We talk to women in their Chamas (women-only informal groups which are formed for economic as well as social support) about the effects of circumcision on their daughters. Some of the women tend to disagree with what we tell them but we listen to their views and persuade them on why they should not cut their daughters. Many of them understand they have no option but to abide by the law,” says Halima.
During one such conversation, one of the elderly women present defended the practice. “We only practise FGM because it is our culture. Tunajua ni mbaya lakini tumeshazoea kukata wasichana (We know that it is not right, but we are used to cutting our girls!)” she explains.
Another explained that the cut is done to ensure that the girl’s clitoris is ‘properly shaped.’
Despite the intransigent positions taken by some of the elderly women in the meeting, some of their daughters spoke out against the practice and respectfully voiced their disagreements.
Marsabit, unlike other sub-counties in what is formerly the Northeastern Province, does not have a homogenous community with one dominant language or religion. Marsabit comprises of more than 12 ethnic communities — the El Molo, Rendille, Samburu, Turkana, Dassanatch, Gabra, Borana, Konso, Sakuye, Garee, Waata, Burji and the Somali.
According to the 2009 census, Muslims make up 46 per cent of the population while 30% of the people describe themselves as Christians. The rest claim to prescribe to other religions.
This ethnic and religious mix has made it possible for people to have frank conversations about subjects that are considered taboo. These conversations tend to get pretty heated but not when outsiders are present.
Then, the conversation around FGM tends to be ‘politically correct’ and those who speak during such forums, espouse the legal position — that FGM is bad and banned and that nobody practices it anymore.
HODI’s adopted a strategy to provide the community with a ‘safe’ place to discuss openly and frankly their deeply held cultural attitudes and beliefs, and to also give those fighting to change these attitudes a platform to be heard.
“We cannot change cultural beliefs through laws. We can only change the people’s attitudes to this practice. And we can only do this through creating awareness and helping them understand why FGM is bad,” Halima says.