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Feature: "It hurt badly" - Kenyan survivor recalls terror of female genital mutilation

22 April 2016, 14:16

Nairobi (Xinhua) -- Vivian Koya is a 15-year-old Maasai girl living in Sekenai village in Narok county, near the famous Maasai Mara National Park Reserve in Kenya.

As she gazed at the open grassland of Maasai Mara which stretches far, the young girl's mind went back to the past, recalling something that happened four years ago which she would rather forget.

"I was in 4th grade the day I came home for my holiday in August, my parents told me I would to be circumcised and married to a man of 45 years old. I was only 11 at that time," Vivian told Xinhua in a recent interview.

The circumcision was carried out in her family's shabby mud hut by some old ladies from the community.

Vivian was not the only victim of the painful practice as two of her elder sisters were circumcised at the same time.

"They used a razor blade. We were circumcised according to the age, they started with my sisters, they cried, I was the last one because I was the youngest. When I realized it was my turn, I screamed but could do nothing, after that I bled for two hours," Vivian recalled, with tears in her eyes.

The circumcision that Vivian underwent is known as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), the partial or complete removal of the external female genitalia. FGM and early marriage has been outlawed in Kenya since 2011, however, in some Kenyan communities where tradition is firmly entrenched, the century-long practice is far from coming to an end.

In Kenya, about 28 percent of women aged 20 to 24 are circumcised between the ages of 5 and 9, according to Kenya Demographic and Health Survey 2014; it is also estimated that Kenya has one of the highest child marriage rate in the world which is up to 25 percent to 30 percent.

In Africa at large, FGM is practiced among certain communities in 29 countries, the statistics from the United Nations Population Funds show.

In these communities, FGM is a deeply rooted custom which marks a girl's initiation into womanhood and is kept as part of the cultural heritage.

"It hurt badly but it was a must," Vivian said, adding if she stood up to protest, she would be considered disobedient. The pressure from her parents muted her as well as her sisters, one of whom fainted after the circumcision and was sent to hospital.

In African communities where FGM is practiced, women who are not circumcised would be seen as "incomplete" and are often despised and alienated by the whole community.

FGM is closely linked to early marriage and could lead to health problems including severe bleeding, increased risk of HIV transmission and complications in childbirth; worse still, the psychological harms caused by the practice could become a life-long trauma to the girls.

For Maasai girls like Vivian, the destiny seems to be settled once they were born, there is no big value attached to them other than "being cut and given out to men for cows," said Esther Dapesh, Vivian's primary school teacher, who rescued her from being married off to the old guy.

"By the time I knew about Vivian's trouble, I felt bad enough that I couldn't stop the cutting. So I have to stop the marriage, but I could not go alone, because I knew it would become a fight, people were not ready to part with the tradition," Dapesh said.

Fighting against the traditional custom is not an easy task as the conflict with the parents of the girls could become risky and violent.

Dapesh, who has committed in rescuing her girl students since 2000, had many of such an experience.

"There was one time the parents came to our school and threatened to kill me with their spears," she said, revealing that in the eyes of Maasai people, she is a woman who challenges the tradition and a trouble maker.

To rescue Vivian, Dapesh sought help from Moses S Kasoe, an assistant chief of Sekenani Sub-Location in Narok County. Under the government's pressure and with the teacher's persuasion, Vivian's parents had finally given up the plan to marry her off.

"The toughest part is to change people's mind, we've held some meetings to sensitize people to the fact the practice is illegal and harmful, however, the practice still persists," Kasoe said.

He added since the practice is legally banned and the government keeps a close eye on the girls' situation, local people have abolished the ceremony which is traditionally held for the circumcision.

"The practice is carried out secretly during the night at the girls' places, which makes it extremely hard for us to know what is going on out there," the assistant chief said.

According to Hon. Linah Chebii Kilimo, the chairperson of Kenya's Anti-FGM Board, one of the major challenges facing the fight to end FGM is the practice is performed with a lot of secrecy. Community members are usually not willing to report the matter or testify in court, thus denying the prosecution the needed witnesses.

Another challenge, according to Kilimo, is the practice is seen as a natural and beneficial tradition that is done in the girl's best interests. This limits a girl's incentive to come forward to raise concerns or talk openly about it.

She suggested enhanced dialogue to help the communities in moving forward with the law enforcement, since some community leaders and councils of elders have spoken openly against the law.

As a way forward, Kasoe appealed for mobilization of more resources to build additional boarding schools and rescue houses to shield the girls from being exposed to FGM and early marriage.

Dapesh said the key to eliminating FGM and early marriage is to educate people, to empower the girls through knowledge and skills, to convince the parents that it is more beneficial to send their daughters to school than to send them off for marriage, to let the whole community accept that it is time to embrace change by abandoning old bad habits.

"I want to be educated, to get a master's even a PhD degree. I'm struggling to get a nice life and bring some changes to my family," Vivian said.

Being one of the top students in her secondary school, Vivian studies hard and dares to dream big. The past might leave a scar but it could not become a hurdle to the future, "I feel bad about being circumcised, but I decided to be proud of myself."

Vivian has turned over the sad page of her life. However, vulnerable young girls like her are still being "cut" each year. "I rescued Vivian, but on the same day, her elder sisters were married off. I could not do much, I could only save those who are under my watch," Dapesh said.

The latest data from the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) shows at least 200 million girls and women have been cut worldwide, with the majority of them living in sub-Saharan Africa and the Arab States, the practice is almost universal in Somalia, Guinea, Djibouti and Egypt, with levels above 90 percent.

According to UNICEF, early marriage rates are particularly high in Eastern Africa countries, like Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia, but also in other African countries, such as Malawi and Mozambique, where the rate is over 50 percent.

For Vivian, difficulties remain on the way to achieve her goals, which is also true for the battle to eradicate FGM and early marriage in Africa.

- Xinhua


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