By the time I was nine years old, I was bursting with eagerness to get circumcised. You see, that was my destiny as I knew it. I fantasised about the day my family would slaughter a cow and hold a big celebration in my honour after circumcision.
My name is Natalie Robi and I was born and raised in Ikerege, Kuria, in Migori County 24 years ago. Female genital mutilation, as I know it to be called, is a revered rite of passage for my Kuria community. Immediately after my 10th birthday, I was supposed to join some other young girls and undergo circumcision. But my mother, being from the Luo community, was opposed to the tradition. As an adolescent, her decision really disturbed me mentally and emotionally.
It was hard to understand why I wasn’t cut like other girls. I really wanted to fit in. But the other girls who had undergone the rite did not want to associate with me. They called me omosagane, meaning the uncircumcised. This took away my self-esteem and confidence.
In an effort to help me deal with being different, my parents enrolled me in a secondary school in Kisii town. I was happy, finally. I had walked out of the cage that was my community, my village where girls still viewed me as a villain.
FIRST GIRL FROM VILLAGE TO JOIN UNIVERSITY
Even though I was far away from my detractors, I still took pride in telling my new friends about my community. I told them about female circumcision and what a beautiful thing it was. I sat for my Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) in 2010 and joined Moi University, Eldoret, in 2011 to pursue a Bachelor of Arts in Economics. I was the first girl in my village to join university.
It was at university that I learnt that female circumcision was actually female genital mutilation (FGM), a form of violence meted on girls. This broke my heart but also gave me a fresh perspective about the practice. . On studying online resources about FGM, I understood why my mother was against it. I deeply appreciated how protective she was of me. I really sympathised with my peers in the village. I felt that somehow, I had to change their mindset towards FGM.
That holiday, I told them of how Kisii and Eldoret towns were different from the village. I told them of the tarmacked roads, the electricity and how there was a better life out there only if they had an education.
The outreach yielded to the initiative called Msichana Empowerment Kuria in 2011. Throughout my university years, I sensitised young girls to change their mindset about FGM. I made them know that it had no value in their lives.
As an uncut woman, nobody from the older generation takes me seriously when I speak out against FGM. They say that they cannot listen to an uncircumcised girl who does not know what she is talking about.
There is hostility in some parts of the community. Sometime in 2016, three of us were conducting village-to-village forums when we were chased away with pangas. We had to run for our lives. A few days later, we were conducting a roadshow only for people to pelt us with stones. They tried to deter us with violence.
But these were not as scary as the threats to our lives that I have received several times from the community elders called Wazee wa Kimila, who are believed to have supernatural powers.
In December 2015, one of them told me that I would die before the end of 2016. In the course of the year, they sent my grandmother to warn me about speaking against FGM if I wanted to live.
According to those, elders, I am supposed to have died a long time ago, only that I do not believe in such, but a higher God who watched over me. The community takes the words of Wazee wa Kimila very seriously and some of these things happen. It is not that I am not scared, but I cannot abandon my work and watch as girls continue to be cut, the razor taking away all their dreams.
In 2016, we were supposed to have a rescue facility at the centre. We had just rescued one girl when some of the community members threatened to torch the entire centre. We had to release her.
Young anti-FGM activists like me find it hard to get donor funding. I have to mobilise funding in all small ways. In January, I had to sell chickens that I keep at the centre to send some of the girls that we support to school.
FGM leaves a permanent scar on its victims. The girl carries the physical scarring and the pain and trauma for the rest of her life. This hinders her from achieving her full potential. In 2015, after graduating from university, I came back to work in my community and use education as a change agent. I had seen education change my life. With an education and a voice, girls are able to stand up for themselves and speak what is right. I also wanted to sensitise the community to understand the far-reaching effects of the cut.
In December 2015, I fundraised online for finances. I wanted to set up a community centre and a library in order to promote literacy and an informed youth, especially girls. There is a lot of power in young people who have the knowledge. I got land to set it up in the form of donations. The centre is now up and running.
I am making a change in my small ways.
About Msichana Empowerment
We run an after-school programme at the centre that targets teens and pre-teens from age nine to 18 years. Here we give them lessons on building their self-confidence, creativity, human rights and comprehension skills. This creates a platform for young people to nurture their skills. About 500 young people come to the centre every week. Another 24 girls in secondary schools in Kuria are beneficiaries of Msichana Empowerment Kuria education scholarships.
We also have community forums and sensitisation programmes. On April 7, we organised the first anti-FGM community celebration. We wanted to bring to the attention of the community that there are people who are changing and abandoning old rites like FGM, and they too can change.
We held a seven-kilometre walk with the girls from the community. The girls danced to mimic a circumcision rite. About 1,000 adults from the community attended. We told them stories of girls who have been alienated by their families for their resistance to FGM, of anti-FGM crusaders whose lives had been threatened by community leaders. Yet all these people were successful and life went on as usual. We showed them that this was just a mere belief. We would want to do this as an annual event in the future.
Awards and recognition
2017 – Zuri Award, Leadership category, by Go Gaga and Barclays Bank.
2017 - Vital Voices fellow (a global one-year fellowship programme for women leaders across the globe)
2017, March – Spoke at the closing plenary of the global festival for ideas on sustainable development goals in Germany. My speech was on how young people are redefining social change in the community.
2016 - EWHA global empowerment for women leaders in Africa who are working on human rights.
2016 - SHE Award by Spark Changemakers.
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