Female genital mutilation condemned by teenage girls and activists

Iten, Kenya – A Pokot woman sits with others at Kaptul village in northwest Kenya. Many here have been forced to undergo FGM per local customs. More than 2,000 girls from the community are still recuperating in the bush out of fear of being arrested by authorities. (Photo: Tonny Onyulo)ITEN, Kenya –Rachael Chepsal, 14, clutched her Bible as she recalled her terrifying ordeal of undergoing female genital mutilation without anesthetic last month.

“I’m still feeling the pain,” said the girl, who lives in Kaptul, a village in northwestern Kenya. “The old woman used a sharp knife that was not sterilized. When I was cut the blood flew. I was terrified because it was not something I chose.”

Chepsal is among more than 2,000 girls from the ethnic Pokot community sent to this remote town by their parents to lay low while they recuperate from the procedure, which has been illegal in Kenya since 2011, said village elders and others.

The surgeries normally take place in August and December when schools are closed.

Chepsal is in seventh grade. Her aunt made arrangements for traditional women circumcisers to abduct her from a local market last month They bound her legs with ropes and forced her to succumb to the operation. “I was in great pain,” she sobbed. “I cried until I passed out. I bled profusely. I was thereafter treated with herbs, salt and water.”

FGM is a global problem. More than 200 million girls and women around the world suffer the consequences of genital mutilation, according to estimates by the United Nations. The agency predicts that if the current trends continue, 15 million additional girls between ages 15 and 19 will be subjected to FGM by 2030.

In Kenya, 21 percent of women admit that they are circumcised, according to Plan International, a humanitarian organization. The prevalence of female circumcision varies widely by background characteristics. Eleven percent of women aged between 15 to 19 years are circumcised. More than 40 percent of women between the ages of 45-49 years are circumcised.

“FGM is illegal in Kenya, yet the problem is not widely enforced,” said Lindsey Pluimer, founder of With My Own Two Hands, a non-governmental organization that provides education to Maasai girls. “These communities live in rural parts of the country and it is hard to enforce since they reject the modern aspects of Kenya society.”

Joseph Lorot, 70, a Pokot elder, said the cutting wouldn’t stopping because it’s deep-rooted in the African culture.

“Some parents still believe that their uncircumcised girls will not be married,” said Lorot, who hosts five girls who are recovering from the procedure in secret. “Men from these communities are making the situation worse by shunning these girls. Men who decide not to marry uncircumcised women are rejected by the community and denied inheritance.”

Traditional women circumcisers, who are paid at least two goats or $30 dollars to perform the ritual, maintained that FGM was the only rite of passage into womanhood and the procedure also controls sexual arousal outside marriage.

“I don’t think anybody can stop the practice,” nodded Lucy Chenagat, a traditional circumciser. “It’s our culture. We cannot live without it. Some of the people who are telling us to stop the practice are already circumcised and their daughters have been cut. Why shouldn’t they allow others to be cut?”

However, experts have warned locals of the dangers associated with FGM.

“There are risks of infection and the possibility of bleeding to death,” noted Pluimer. “This procedure has been done on pregnant women as well. Women who have had FGM are significantly more likely to experience difficulties, including high rates of c-section, during childbirth, and the babies are more likely to die as a result of the practice.”

Meanwhile, members of the ethnic Samburu community in northern Kenya are giving up the long-practiced tradition of circumcising girls as a rite of passage. Local Samburu schools now offer alternatives to female genital mutilation, like coming of age ceremonies. Samuel Leadismo, a Samburu warrior, is leading the fight against the practice.

“I’m helping my community to ensure there are no cases of early marriages, female genital mutilation and also school dropouts,” said Leadismo, the director of Pastoralist Child Foundation. “FGM in Samburu community has gone down. I will not allow the practice to continue in my community because I know the effects of FGM.”

Some girls in the Maasai, Pokot and other ethnic groups hope that open-mindedness would come to their communities soon.

“It was a bad experience for me,” said Chepsal.“I don’t want my sisters to go through the same experience. FGM can kill. I saw young girls crying in pain and no one could assist them. This practice should be stopped.”
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