Ruth Jepchumba Kilimo, 27, is the co-founder of the Marakwet Girls’ Foundation which aims at campaigning against Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). She received the 2018 End FGM Female Champion of the Year Award on the International Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM. She was awarded by the Anti-FGM Board.
Tell us about yourself.
I come from Elgeyo-Marakwet County, Marakwet East Sub-County to be specific. I am the last born in a family of eight.
I studied Community Development at Moi University. I’m thinking of pursuing a Master’s Degree in Policy and Administration from the University of Nairobi.
How did the foundation come about?
I grew up feeling that the girls in my community were forced into doing everything. It was the same rite of passage for everyone: get a primary education, get circumcised, go to high school and then get married. FGM is a cultural belief in my community.
I was strongly against this, which is why I felt the need to get an education so that I could help the girls see a life outside the community. This was in 2016, in my fourth year of university.
Through the Elgeyo Marakwet University Students’ Association, I was able to identify 11 other girls who came from my region. We shared ideas, and aired our voices by going round to primary schools while we were on holiday.
We were only registered as the Marakwet Girls’ Foundation after we completed our university education. We have been involved fully since then.
Exactly how old were you when you went against this practice?
I was eleven. It was circumcision day, and my last errand was going to the posho mill. I remember seeing a woman driving a big car around, and this shocked me and prompted me to ask about her. This is because the only other car I had seen around was the local priest’s. He was white.
Luckily, the person I decided to ask about the woman was a teacher in a neighbouring school. I asked, ‘What could she have possibly done to be this successful?’ He mentioned three things: she went to and completed school, wasn’t circumcised and feared the Lord. I only found out later that the woman is our current Member of Parliament Linah Kilimo.
After the discussion with the teacher, I went home and begged my mother not to let me go through the circumcision. She refused, obviously.
She asked where I got the idea from so suddenly, only hours to the ceremony. I filled her in on what I had been told, but she wanted to hear none of it.
So I ran away, knowing that the circumcisers would not come back to my village for another year. I went back home the following day and received an expected beating.
I returned to school and saw that all my classmates, except the head teacher’s and the pastor’s daughters, had been circumcised. News spread fast in our village about me; circumcision is done in an open area and everyone who is cut is known. Almost half of the girls were married within a year. Only then did I realise that there was a real problem. I knew I had to do something.
By then, Hon. Kilimo was already against the FGM practice. When she heard there was a girl from her village who had vowed to follow in her footsteps, she warned the elders against circumcising me.
I completed my primary education and passed with flying colours. This was the same case four years later after joining a local secondary school. I joined the university in 2012, after looking for monetary aid for my fees. A small fundraiser was held, and I was able to afford the fees for my first semester. I later got bursaries, the Higher Educations Loans Board chipped in, and some relatives also supported me.
Do you think the situation is changing, with the foundation?
Greatly. We do this through programmes in schools, as well as camps when they are on holiday. The direct interaction with the people, and the fact that I can relate to the situation has made it better. It would have been different had I been from the city. This way, the girls not only look up to me, but are also able to talk to me in person.
Parents also contact me directly for workshops or activities during the holidays so that their daughters may not give in to the pressure of circumcision from elders and other community members.
What’s the greatest challenge you have faced?
We worked really hard all through 2016, making sure we have educated the community against FGM. We barely rested. But in December, when the ceremony is normally held, we recorded the highest number of circumcised girls in comparison to previous years – 30 of them. That broke me.
Who do you look up to? And why?
Initially, it was Hon. Kilimo. We met soon after she got word that a young girl in her community looked up to her. Over the years, she became family to me. She supported me and always wanted the best for me.
Now, the young girls who I work with motivate me, because I do this for their future. We have interacted with more than 3,000 girls since we began.
Congratulations on your award. How did that make you feel?
I was ecstatic that someone actually recognised my efforts. We work deep in the villages, and even though the impact is big there, the world never gets to hear of it. I saw the list of nominees and was overwhelmed that I got the award. This motivated me more. Our work has really just begun. The girls in turn also realised that there is hope for them.
What is the best advice you’ve received?
It was definitely Kanze Dena’s last words as she left prime time television to take up the position of deputy State House spokesperson. She said that whatever you do, no matter how little it seems, you should do it to the best of your ability because you never know who is watching.
What advice would you give to the young women in Kenya?
As cliché as it may sound, we should hold hands and come together. We should talk about the issues affecting us and our communities and find ways to address them.
What next for you?
I have a big vision. I am looking at the bigger picture and I see an era when FGM will be history.
I have also been selected as one of two young leaders from Kenya for the Women Deliver conference to be held in Vancouver, Canada, in June 2019. The classes, which have already started, will run until it’s time to head to Vancouver.
Women Deliver is a global advocate for gender equality, health rights and the well-being of girls and women. They hold conferences once every three years. They select change-makers from all over the world.
My dream is to also sit at the table with the decision makers.