After seeing her sister Rahina bleed to death as a result of undergoing female genital mutilation (FGM) in Bisil, Kajiado County, Peninah Lesale, a primary school student, ran away from home in April last year to avoid the possibility of suffering the same fate.
But her story is not unique in the sprawling Maasailand. Charity Nkinyi and Linet Nasei did the same in order to secure better future.
“I want to be a lawyer. I want to help girls from my community so that they can understand the effects of FGM and early marriage,” Nkinyi told DN2 during an interview at a rescue centre in Bisil, Kajiado County.
The Form Three student at Meto Mixed Secondary School ran away from home in 2008 after her older sister told her that their parents were planning to have her circumcised.
“My parents wanted to force me to do it. I was in Standard Five but I refused to undergo the rite because I knew the effects of FGM. Besides, I wanted to continue with my education,” she offered.
Like all girls who reject the rite, she became an outcast, although her mother occasionally visits her at the centre
“My father still insists that I must be circumcised. I’m afraid he might get people to abduct and force me to undergo the rite so I avoid going home,” she explained.
Meanwhile, 16-year-old Linet Nasei, from Namanga, Kajiado, ran away from home three years ago. “I was in Standard Five and my mother wanted to force me to get circumcised. But I refused and ran away from home,” she said.
Nasei, who did her Kenya Certificate of Primary Education examination last year, lives with a well-wisher in Namanga town on the border of Kenya and Tanzania, further said, “I asked my mother why girls from other communities were not circumcised. I told her that I had a goal in life that I wanted to achieve, and that FGM would adversely affect me.”
Like Nkinyi, Nasei wants to become a lawyer. “My community needs to be enlightened and I believe I can do that. But I don’t know how I will achieve it. I am hoping to get someone to pay my school fees. My mother told me that if I do not get circumcised, I will not find a husband, but I told her it doesn’t matter,” she added.
Tens, or perhaps even hundreds of Maasai girls who have fled from home for similar reasons live in rescue centres or with well-wishers in different parts of Kajiado.
According to Maasai culture, a girl is deemed marriageable after undergoing the rite, so most girls who get circumcised are married off shortly thereafter.
The community believes that an uncircumcised girl cannot get a husband, and that a curse will befall a man who marries such a woman.
Girls who get pregnant before they are circumcised undergo the cut during delivery, exposing them to greater pain and the danger of infection.
But even as the government and non-governmental organisations step up efforts to rescue girls across the country from the practice, parents and guardians are devising ways of ensuring that their girls are circumcised without incurring the wrath of the authorities.
“I would say that nine out of every 10 girls here have been circumcised,” says anti-FGM campaigner, Mr Umash Letuati of Erankau Location in Kajiado.
To avoid detection, parents are having their girls secretly circumcised, with those living near the Kenya-Tanzania border taking their girls to Tanzania to undergo the rite.
“It is hard to know when a girl has been circumcised nowadays. You will only know that they have undergone the cut after several weeks, when they have already healed.
“We ask them at school if they have been circumcised and since children are so innocent, they tell us that they were taken to Tanzania,” Chief Caroline Ncharo of Bisil told DN2.
With Bisil just about 60 kilometres from the Tanzania border, Chief Ncharo says, taking girls to Tanzania is not a problem. She said the girls are taken from around midnight and brought back home before dawn.
The chief, who is also an anti-FGM campaigner, has rescued numerous girls from the cut and early marriage.
Meanwhile, parents who cannot take their girls across the border send them to relatives living far away. When asked where they have been, the girls usually say they were just visiting.
Some parents confine their girls indoors and tell them to feign illness until they are completely healed, explained Mrs Ncharo.
Besides, they no longer openly perform the ceremony that traditionally came immediately after the rite of passage, but now conduct it much later under the guise of some celebration.
“The post-circumcision ceremony for girls used to be very big but that is no longer the case. They perform the ceremony only for boys,” says volunteer children’s officer in Namanga, Mrs Mary Kishil, adding that even though there’s a decline in FGM overall, it is still rampant in the area.
And girls as young as five years are undergoing the cut, unlike in the past when it was performed on older girls.
“The community is performing the ritual before the girls know their rights. They are cheated that a bug has infested their private parts and that it has to be removed. Parents know that at that age, the girls cannot refuse because they do not understand the implications,” she explained.
Circumcisers have also devised ways of fooling the authorities by masquerading as health care providers. “They go to hospitals and ask for gloves and razor blades, pretending to be traditional birth attendants (TBAs) when in fact, they only perform the cut,” explained Mrs Ncharo.
Circumcision is big business, with circumcisers get between Sh3,000 and Sh3,500 for every girl they operate on, she explained. And this even though they know the negative effects of FGM on a woman’s reproductive system as well as the possibility of getting an infection or dying after the cut.
“There are many cases of girls dying after the cut that go unreported. The girls are buried quietly and we only learn of their deaths much later because the bereaved families are afraid to get burial permits since they know FGM is illegal.
“We have a responsibility chiefs to educate the community that they cannot bury anyone without a burial permit from the government,” says Mrs Ncharo.
Notably, some of the local people opposed to FGM accuse some administrators of collaborating with those who support the practice.
According to one resident who requested anonymity, there is nothing that happens at the village level without the knowledge of the chiefs or sub-chiefs, so their failure to take action against those perpetrating the practice is tantamount to encouraging the practice.
According to Mr Letuati, parents and the community as a whole have become defiant because of the approach that has been used in the campaign against FGM.
“They (the community) feel that no one should force them to abandon a tradition they have practised for years. When the campaign was started, they felt threatened. Activists did not consider that they were talking to women who had been circumcised, to a community that was deeply entrenched in culture.
“Instead of taking the women through the disadvantages of FGM in a way that they could accept, they pushed them to accept laws they knew nothing about.
“The women felt that the campaigners were attacking them and, consequently, became defiant and vowed to continue circumcising their girls,” he says.
This has resulted in resistance to the 2011 Anti-FGM laws as evidenced by the recent declarations by leaders and community elders from some regions, including Marakwet, where 31 girls had just been circumcised, and Samburu, that they will continue with the practice.
Communities that cherish the practice feel that the campaigners disparage their culture, Mr Letuati explained, adding that the campaign should find a more acceptable approach.
“Actually, the girls attend seminars on FGM and on their rights but are circumcised as soon as they get home,” he revealed.
He added that if the community were educated on the effects of FGM without being threatened, the practice would gradually die out.
His views are echoed by Pastor Haron Oloruma of the Full Gospel Church, Ilmarba, who says: “It (FGM) cannot be stopped at once but can be eradicated over time. The campaigners should make people understand the effects of FGM instead of forcing them to stop it.”
The pastor, who campaigns against FGM through his Approved Workmen Are Not Ashamed (Awana) children’s programme, said the campaign would bear fruit if church leaders took the lead. But there is a need for the government to first educate and train the leaders on how to approach the matter, he added.
His view that low literacy levels contribute to the entrenchment of the practice is shared by Mrs Mary Kishil.
Mrs Kishil says the government should set up information centres where communities, especially those in very remote areas, can be taught about FGM and other harmful traditions like early marriage.
She suggests that the government introduce FGM and cultural practices in the school curriculum.
But non-governmental organisations say FGM should be eradicated by all means.
“We should prevent FGM. It does not matter what defence mechanisms communities use or the avenues they use to circumcise their girls. The most important thing is to defend the health and rights of the children,” says Nathaniel Murungi, a project officer with the Girl Child Network in Kajiado.
Kajiado County governor Dr David Nkedienye says his government is against FGM, “We do not support FGM. That is the stand of this government. It is a practice that has been overtaken by time and is also illegal. We have been educating our people to save our young girls from the trauma and adverse effects of FGM,” he said.
However, a local resident said many leaders in the area are reluctant to comment on the practice because it could cost them votes in future.