Habiba Abdi was eight years old when her mother took her for Female Genital Mutilation. A naive Habiba believed she was going for a harmless ear piercing occasion known as ‘gururani’ as mentioned by her mother. But this turned out to be a horrifying experience. She remembers: “I joined other girls before the procedure and witnessed their screams as they entered the room one by one. I was terrified and let the other girls go ahead of me. When it was finally my turn, I gained courage to escape, albeit after the first cut despite being held by five women. I ran to my father’s workplace bleeding.”
Angered by the act, Habiba’s father confronted everyone involved. The next day, her mother and the others were arrested. Unfortunately, her mother’s family was angry at them and demanded a divorce. “I grew up with my dad and only saw my mum again when I turned 21. It’s been tough knowing I was the cause of their divorce. But now, I’m a passionate advocate against FGM, fighting to end it wherever I go in Isiolo,” said Habiba.
FGM has different meanings, for Somalis and Boranas. It is seen as a religious practice to control girls’ sexuality. Samburus view it as a tradition symbolizing readiness for marriage. Jecinta Lekwalee, a 30-year-old mother of three from the Samburu community, underwent the procedure of FGM when she was just 12 years old. Unfortunately, after being married off to an older man, it was discovered that her cutting had not been done properly, leading to her being circumcised a second time. She recalls the lack of care, pain and heavy bleeding. Jecinta believes that the belief that undergoing FGM was necessary for marriage was false.
“The image of the pain I endured during the cutting, which happened twice and witnessing one of the girls bleeding to death has never faded. The healing process was excruciating, causing pain while sitting and while going to washroom. I wouldn’t wish this upon any other girl.”Jecinta
Advocating for girls rights and fighting FGM
Despite her mother being a circumciser, Jecinta chose to break away from that path and she is championing for all girls to focus on their education and seize opportunities in various fields. In 2020, Isiolo Voice of Women was established as a support group for marginalized girls and women. It created a safe space for them to voice their concerns. The group has grown to include 2000 members and 200 women’s groups, evenly distributed across three wards in Isiolo. They collaborated with Action Aid in 2022, an organization advocating against FGM and providing aid to communities affected by natural disasters.
This partnership under the Africa-led Movement to end FGM, a UK-government funded programme designed to significantly reduce the prevalence of female genital mutilation or cutting in Kenya by 2025. The programme is funded by the UK government (FCDO) and will build on the foundations of the first five-year investment (2013 – 2018) made by the then Department for International Development (DFID), under the banner of The Girl Generation.
The Isiolo Voice of Women implemented their programmes in Oldonyiro, Kinna, and Burat Wards that started with 30 champions leading groups of 25-30 people. The initiative, however, faces the challenge of hard-held beliefs regarding FGM/C. According to Jecinta, the involvement of the Sheikhs and Quran had influence on the men’s beliefs and made it difficult to change their mindset. However, Action Aid organized seminars and community dialogues that dispelled myths on FGM/C.
Abdia Gedi, Vice chairperson of the Women’s Rights Network, shared how men’s attitudes towards FGM have transformed. Initially, men believed it was for reducing girls’ sexual desire and religious culture. But after Sheikh started talking to them, positive changes happened. For instance, men can now willingly attend FGM-related fora. Abdia stressed on educating girls and valuing their potential instead of treating them as commodities to end harmful norms and promoting gender equality through education and awareness.
The Action aid program under the shield of Africa Led Movement to end FGM started in June 2021 and their main goal is to work with young girls. Since the program started they’ve been able to see the changes in the girls attitude and their ability to speak out unlike how before. They have also managed to take 100 survivors back to school. “Isiolo is enriched in culture, it has been hard for us to change perceptions of people about FGM culture. We do advocacy on effects of FGM but we can’t force change of mindset as it is a personal decision. We have had cases of young girls undergoing FGM as young as six months and arrests were made.
We work with healthcare givers to confirm small babies are not circumcised during clinic days.Diram Duba, Action aid, project coordinator in Isiolo County
Action Aid conducts training sessions in communities and schools to accelerate the impact of the Africa Led Movement to end FGM. They work closely with community members, including project champions, chief, Sheikhs’, pastors, teachers, partners and the county government. The champions ensure FGM doesn’t occur, report any practitioners and raise awareness. Action Aid also provides a forum for champions to speak to young girls in schools.
“The biggest challenge is lack of a rescue centre, if you go to Oldonyiro ward, you will find children at the police station who have escape early marriages and FGM. We lack a safe space for them. We also work with a certain lady who has offered to help house a few survivors, but she has a limited space. As at now she is housing more than 100 children,” Diram said.