Kenya: 'FGM Outlawed but Persists'
In a bid to retain culture and due to the greed of men who profit by marrying off their daughters, some communities in Kenya still practice Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).
Section 14 of The Children’s Act of 2001 in Kenya protects children against harmful cultural practices under which FGM falls. Though this law has been in place for a decade, the practice is still rampant, especially among pastoral communities where even a girl may demand FGM since she has been brought up believing it to be part of her initiation to maturity.
While some people reason that FGM is part of their culture, similar to paying dowry or naming children after relatives, others aim at increasing their wealth. The latter is predominant among pastoral communities where the number of animals a man has determines his wealth and wins him respect, and girls are married off in exchange for camels, cattle, and goats. The cut symbolizes a woman’s initiation to adulthood, and in some communities men do not agree to marry girls who have not undergone FGM.
Approximately 28 percent of women in Kenya have undergone FGM, with the highest numbers being recorded among the Somalis and Kisii communities. Among the Kalenjins, 48 percent of women are cut. Although the Pokots are a sub-tribe of the Kalenjins, FGM practice might be up to 80-90 percent in this pastoral community.
But one woman in Rift Valley has defied all odds and said “no” to this deep-rooted cultural practice.
When death took away her husband ten years ago, Eunice Tenges did not mourn much. While she was sad to have lost the family’s sole breadwinner in a cattle rustling conflict between the Pokot and Turkana communities, Tenges, age 50, knew her husband’s death brought the opportunity to fight Female Genital Mutilation.
During my two-day stay in Kokwatoto in East Pokot, Northern Kenya, Tenges is the only woman I found who had refused to cut her daughters. I was visiting Kokwatoto to witness the building of an eye clinic and it was out of curiosity that I asked a man, who only gave me his name as David, if there was such a woman as Tenges.
“She brews chang’aa (illicit brew) and is hated by everyone,” David told me.
Having been born in Nyeri, Central province, I was unfamiliar with FGM. The only time I heard about FGM was from my late grandmother, who explained to me that she did not go to school and was instead circumcised.
It was not until I moved to Rift Valley six years ago that I came face-to-face with the practice. In Rift Valley I found women who confessed to having undergone FGM, and witnessed children forced into marriage after the procedure.
Tenges had undergone FGM as a 13 year-old girl – the same age at which she was forced to marry a man 20 years older than her. “I had wanted to continue with my education, but only dropped off at class three to get the cut and later be married off,” she tells me.
Her efforts to beg her father not to marry her off bore no fruits. He told her she was a grown-up woman, having gone through the cut, and that he needed to increase his livestock.
“He was paid five camels, ten cows, and 15 goats as dowry. Then I was told to go with the old man, whom I had to learn to love,” says Tenges.
Culture among the Pokot community dictates that women must be submissive. It is men in the Pokot community who dictate how their homes are run. Elders, comprising of old men, dictate the running of the community. While Tenges had long prayed that her daughters would somehow escape the cut and pursue an education, she had never raised the issue before her late husband, fearing that he would get agitated, beat her up, or send her back to her parents.
When he died, she comforted herself that although it was a loss to her family, it was a great achievement for her four daughters.
After she buried her husband, Tenges’ elder brother took away her eldest daughter claiming that he would put her through primary education. “I was excited by the offer. Having been widowed, I felt my brother was lifting off the burden of taking my child to school,” says the mother of ten.
Two years later, her daughter visited home with long, unkempt hair resembling dreadlocks. Wearing many traditional ornaments on her neck and a goat skin round her shoulders, she was the image of a typical Pokot girl ready for marriage. If a man admires her, he goes to the parent’s home and proposes. The man who is able to pay the highest number of livestock is given first priority, regardless of what the girl wants or the couple’s age difference.
“I shaved off her hair, and ordered her to remove the ornaments and the goat skin. She would not undergo FGM,” says Tenges. “She would go to school.”
Tenges was rejected by her three brothers, who reminded her that she was stupid to have refused to marry off her daughter when the dowry would have made her rich (Had she given in, her brothers would negotiate the bride price, receive the lion’s share, and give the remainder to Tenges). Her stand also made her neighbours and other relatives reject her.
When Tenges refused to let go of her first-born daughter, a brother-in-law came for her second girl.
“He pretended to be good, saying he would help me take her to school, and that he would make sure she does not undergo FGM,” says Tenges. But when she went to visit her, Tenges noticed that she too had grown the dreadlock-like hair.
“I sensed danger and took my daughter away,” says Tenges.
FGM is a deep-rooted culture among most pastoral communities in Kenya, most of which have yet to embrace education for girls and the rights of women. That is why Tenges, to me, is a hero. She is illiterate, but she is a strong woman who has stood against the norm, bearing consequences such as rejection and poverty.
I wish the government and more NGOs would intensify their campaigns against FGM. Campaigns would empower women and show them that they have a right to be heard on what their children should or should not undergo. This way, we would have more women like Tenges, who fearlessly stand up for their children and tell their husbands that women need to be educated.
If women from regions such as Pokot are not empowered, then the practice of FGM may unfortunately continue in Kenya.
By Rachel Muthoni