As the world marks the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation, we spoke to Peninah Karimi, a Kenyan chief who has defied numerous challenges to ensure that girls escape the cut. At only 30 years, Peninah Karimi became the first female assistant chief in Tharaka Nithi County in Kenya. She is now an anti-fgm and child marriage crusader.
Peninah Karimi Mugambi is the assistant chief of Kithingiri sub location in Tharaka Nithi County. While her peers in other regions go about their normal duties as government administrators, Karimi has more than just a job. She is a watchdog for children and young girls at the risk of early marriage and female genital mutilation.
On a chilly Monday morning, Karimi braves the cold to accomplish the numerous tasks ahead of her. It is her busiest day of the week.
A typical Monday for the assistant chief starts at 5am. She prepares and drops her son to school before setting off for work. On her motorbike, Karimi tours household after household to look out for children who have missed school for one reason or another, those awaiting female genital mutilation and young ones who are lined up for marriage.
Her presence in most homesteads here is frowned at as she is seen as an enemy of cultural practices that are deeply entrenched among the community. “Whenever they see me at their homes, the community members know I have come to make arrests. But I am not about to relent,” says the 32-year-old administrator who is the youngest and first female chief in the area.
Born and raised in a culture that disregards women empowerment, Karimi’s journey to become an assistant chief has not been an easy one. “The day I got this position, many openly told me that they could not be led by a woman,” she remembers. “The fact that I was young and had not undergone FGM made the situation worse. “Some locals believed that it was taboo for an uncircumcised woman to lead them, especially at my age.”
Karimi’s week is well structured, with little time to waste. Besides her quest to ensure that all children go to school, the 32-year-old chief is an ardent campaigner against FGM and child marriages. But how does she start this conversation in a community that is so engrossed in these cultural practices? “I had to be tactful. Immediately I was appointed a chief in 2018, I sought the buy-in of nchuri ncheke, the local council of elders in this community. I was also strategic in engaging with the circumcisers,” she says. According to her, having a candid conversation with these two groups was crucial in her quest to liberate young girls from female genital mutilation, child marriage and child labour.
A 2017 report by UNICEF, however, cites glaring barriers to efforts such as the ones by Karimi. The baseline study report on Female Genital Mutilation/ Cutting and Child Marriage highlights collusion between victims and perpetrators of child abuse as a key challenge to the fight against the voce. Political interference, shortage of rescue centres as well as poor infrastructure have continued to frustrate the war against child marriage and female circumcision. But to Karimi, none of these will distract her efforts. “My strategy is to address the challenge from the perpetrators and not the victims. If I can have a fruitful dialogue with the circumcisers, for instance, or the men offering their children for marriage, then my work will be easy,” she says. And that is exactly what she has done.
Growing up, Karimi witnessed numerous atrocities against children and young girls in her community. As a young girl, she was powerless then. “I observed quietly and it pained me each day as my peers underwent the cut and eventually got married before they could start their secondary education. I was lucky to go to school and escape the cut,” she says.
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) estimates that there may be as many as two million cases of female genital mutilation by 2030 that would have otherwise been averted due to the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the Fund, in 2021 alone, there are 4.16 million girls around the world, who are at risk of undergoing female genital mutilation.
Determined to be the voice for such girls, Karimi started holding talks with community leaders during social gatherings such as church and other meetings. As a resident here, I had observed many things that were going wrong in my community including rampant FGM, teen pregnancies and child marriages. Her efforts, unfortunately, did not bear fruit. “In the local church, I witnessed discrimination against myself and women who had not undergone FGM. We were seen as outcasts and could not participate in church activities.”
Karimi knew these challenges required more powers to fix. That is why in 2017, with blessings from her husband, applied for the position of an assistant chief in Kithingiri sub location after the former leader had retired. After a successful interview in September 2017, she qualified for the job and on December 27 the same year, Karimi got her appointment letter. On January 10, 2018, Karimi was given the legal mandate to lead the sub location. “It was a dream come true. I now knew I had all the necessary powers to fight the illegal practices in this area,” says a jovial Karimi.
To this chief, her job is more than just a routine schedule as an administrator. “It is a calling,” she says. Every school holiday, Karimi holds inter-religious seminars in the sub location, educating the community on the dangers of female circumcision. “For schools, I get invited to speak to students towards the end of the school term These sessions are meant to discourage the pupils from being cut while on school holidays. I always give my number to all the students, asking them to alert me when they are in danger of being cut or married off,” says Karimi.
Her efforts have borne fruit and according to her, the community members have become her key informants. Those who could not bear with her strict rules have since moved to other locations.
Karimi’s vision is to become a deputy county commissioner where she will lead a larger section of the community and leave greater impact. She is currently pursuing a degree in Leadership and Public Administration.