Stories abound of female circumcision, early marriages and the fight against these practices in various parts of Kenya.
For decades, there has been spirited activism around the need to abandon the two traditional practices.
While the war was previously fought by activists, including government authorities, the would-be victims have now joined in. Young girls in the communities where these practices are rampant have had to make hard choices, including abandoning their homes for safe shelters where their childhood is protected.
Samburu Girls Foundation (SGF), Maralal, is one such a place where young girls hide away from harmful cultural practices of their communities. Here, girls as young as eight years old have found a home, where their lives are knitted together with threads of pain, betrayal, tenacity, strength and forgiveness.
DN2 had a heart-to-heart chat with five girls from Samburu County who have had to pay dearly in fighting these practices, which militate against their quest for education, growth and development.
AGE: 19 YEARS
Wanjira sat her KCPE examinations in 2014. She was 15 years. She knew her parents would not be taking her to secondary school. First, there was no money to pay for her education, and secondly, her parents had separated. She also knew that is she did not proceed to secondary school, she would be married off. She had seen it happen to dozens of her friends and classmates.
“Actually, the plans to marry me off were already in place, so I confided to my then school head teacher who connected me to someone who was rescuing girls like me. I didn't even think about my actions, I just left home,” she says.
The thought of getting married that young did not go well with Wanjira. She wanted more for herself than the village could offer. Then, whenever she had access to TV, the anchors were her inspiration. She had her career figured out.
“I have transformed in ways even my parents cannot imagine. My relationship with them is good although occasionally we have misunderstandings that stem from my transformation.
There are things that they sometimes want me to do, but since I don’t agree with them, I adamantly stand my ground and say, ‘No’.
Having completed her secondary school education last year, Wanjira has changed her career path and now aspires to become a teacher so that she can educate and enlighten other children.
“Were it not for my head teacher in primary school, who looked out for me, I would probably be someone’s wife. I want to do what that head teacher did for me for other children who may find themselves in a position like the one I was in,” she says.
AGE: 19 YEARS
Joy was only 11 years old in 2011, when elders in her community decided she was ripe enough for marriage. A suitor had been found, a 65-year-old man.
“I was in class six and I only got to know about the plans on the material day. Thankfully, a friend of mine told me about a rescue centre in Maralal (northern Kenya).
“As I was trying to figure out how to escape from the impending marriage, the centre came and rescued me. Someone had tipped them off about my case,” she says.
Unfortunately, before she was rescued, she had already gone through the cut to prepare her for her married life. At the centre, life was difficult and lonely. On several nights, she wondered why her relatives had betrayed her, yet they knew she looked forward to going to school.
“I also felt that it was only my mother who loved me because I knew that she had been against my arranged marriage. However, there were also nights when I felt guilty for running away from home. My sister had been married off so young, so my running away could have been seen as disrespect.”
“I returned home for the first time in 2014. Since then, I have been visiting regularly. I currently have a good relationship with my parents and they take pride in me, especially seeing that I want to pursue a nursing career,” she says.
Looking back, she feels that her parents’ decision to marry her off was prompted by poverty.
“Since they couldn't afford to pay for my education, they must have thought it was best for me to get married just like other girls in the neighbourhood,” she says.
AGE: 19 YEARS
“At the age of 15, a man came to our home and expressed interest in marrying me, a process known as beading. A beaded girl is out of bounds from other men because she is ‘booked’ by the one who has offered her the beads,” Maria explains.
She was to be circumcised and get married off after sitting for her KCPE examinations. Luckily, her maternal uncle got wind of the plans through her mother and the two hatched a plan for her escape.
“I felt lonely and sad that I had to be away from my family. At the centre, there were new faces, so I had to form new friendships. I really missed home, but I comforted myself that I had to persevere so that I could achieve what I wanted,” she narrates.
Although her mother was on her side, she could not have argued with or stopped the elders. Her father, too, had no voice over the elders. In her community, she reveals, it is the uncles and the extended family that decide the fate of the girls.
“When I visit home, those who wanted me married off are still upset. They argue that even with my education, I will still get married. According to them, I ought to be married already and raising a family,” she says.
Maria, who completed her secondary school education last year, hopes to join a medical school and study pharmacy.
AGE: 18 YEARS
“When I was told that I was to be circumcised in 2014, at 13 years, I agreed to the plans, but also started to devise ways of escaping from home,” says Lucy.
At school, motivational speakers would regularly speak to them about the dangers of FGM and early marriage. Lucy was, therefore, intent on avoiding these two practices, even if it meant being separated from her friends and siblings.
“I confided in our head teacher and my teachers encouraged me to sit for the national examinations while keeping the plans to myself. I didn’t tell anyone at home what I intended to do. When I completed the exams, I was rescued and taken to the centre.”
For three years, she lived at the centre, and was only reunited with her family in 2017.
“My father has since passed away, but my mother is alive. I have a good relationship with her, and although she doesn’t say it, I know that she is sorry about what I had to go through,” she offers.
Lucy aspires to be a journalist so that she can tell the untold stories of her community and help increase awareness regarding the practices, which she believes are backward and retrogressive. She is also committed to ensuring that her siblings do not go through any harmful practices.
AGE: 20 YEARS
“I was 16 when I ran away from, but not because of circumcision or the threat of being married off. I did it because I felt unloved and unwanted by my family,” Sarafina says.
“My mother died in 2003 when I was five, and my father remarried. Since then, I lived a life that involved constantly having to stand up for myself because of the mistreatment I received from my stepmother. Today, I am still fiercely independent. Besides the help I get from the centre, nobody else helps me in any way.
Having had enough with mistreatment at home, she decided to enrol herself at a free public boarding school. Thankfully, the school was willing to cater for her basic needs and learning materials.
“When I was 14, as I waited to sit my KCPE exams, I got a boyfriend who I felt was the only person who loved and understood me. I ended up getting pregnant. It was a difficult time for me. I would laugh and appear strong in the company of other people, but I would cry myself sore once I retired to my room.”
“My teachers were my strength. They reminded me that my pregnancy was not the end of life and dissuaded me from dropping out from school. At home, I was vilified and considered a prostitute. I was told that I had brought shame to my family. Before I got pregnant, in a quest to make my father and stepmother love me, I had undergone circumcision. Still, their perception of me didn’t change.”
In August 2014, when she was about five months pregnant, she was told about Samburu Girls Foundation (SGF) and decided to go there after completing her exams. Three weeks to the exams, she started having incessant headaches, but did not mention it to anyone. She considered herself a failure and felt that she had given her teachers enough trouble.
“Progressively, l started experiencing dizziness, and when I was taken to the hospital, it was found that my unborn baby had already died in the womb. I was admitted to hospital and had to plead with the doctors to allow me sit for the examinations. I knew that education was the only ticket that would get me out of the situation I was in,” she says.
She performed well in her exams and joined secondary school where she also attained good grades, giving her a chance to join the university. Today, she is a bachelor of mathematics student at Multimedia University and aspires to become a data analyst.
I retrospect, she says, “had I not got pregnant, I would have probably agreed to early marriage to please my father, just like I accepted to be circumcised. While there were those who came to the centre and got homesick the following day, it was like paradise for me. I know have a good relationship with my father, mainly because he didn’t force me into early marriage, even though I had an altercation with him a few years ago when he tried to force my younger sister to be circumcised. I talked to him, he saw my reasoning and abandoned the plans.”
MORE WORK NEEDS TO BE DONE TO WIN THE BATTLE
While the young women are keen on fighting against unlawful practices such as female genital cutting and early marriage in their communities, there are a myriad of challenges in their way.
“When we leave the centre, say to go to the market, some people insult us, calling us prostitutes. Also, when we reunite with our families, most of our childhood friends want nothing to do with us. They consider us proud and disrespectful of our culture,” Lucy says.
According to Sarafina Nang’da, it has been difficult warning other girls against the harmful effects of practices like FGM because of the wrong advice they are given at home.
“Some parents scare their daughters by telling them that something evil will befall them if they fail to undergo the rite or get married.
“Also, some of the girls just don’t want to listen to us because they don’t consider us worth their attention because we didn’t undergo circumcision.”
Huawei Kenya has been working with Samburu Girls Foundation for close to two years now. Besides spear-heading mentorship programmes at the centre, the telecommunications company also offers them laptops, which go a long way in aiding them in class.
Mr Adam Laine, Public Affairs Director at Huawei Kenya, says that the mentorship and laptops have given the girls contact with the outside world.
“They can access the internet, research and learn more. They are also able to shoot videos and edit them using the machines and share them online,” he adds.