FGM: ‘I said, how can this be? I am 10, I am too young. You can bleed and you can die’
Rodney Rice, former RTÉ presenter, now chairman of ActionAid Ireland, on one Irish charity’s role in the fight to stop female genital mutilation
Female genital mutilation: What recently was the fate of close to 100 per cent of the girls in West Pokot has now fallen by over one-quarter and probably by more in Kongelai. Photograph: iStock
There is no delicate way to tell this story of the horrific abuse of women and girls. At 10 years of age, Abigael Nalem took the biggest decision of her young life – she ran away from home. She did not know where to go or how to get there, she just knew that she must flee.
Her mother had just told Abigael that she was to be circumcised. She may have used that word or, more colloquially, said Abigael was to be “cut”. She certainly would not have used the term which most accurately describes what she intended to happen to her young daughter – female genital mutilation (FGM).
Across 28 countries in Africa, millions of girls are subjected to what is claimed to be an age-old cultural practice. FGM is now outlawed in 24 of those countries, but it is still carried out in secret rather than, as formerly, in a village ceremony.
Like her mother, her grandmothers and preceding female generations, Abigael’s future had been preordained by patriarchy. A child today, tomorrow she would be a woman ready for marriage.
“I said, how can this be? I am 10, I am too young. I remembered a women’s network came to the village talking about FGM and how they can help us. So when my parents sent me to look after the farm, I got a chance to run away and eventually reached the women’s network, who brought me to this school. I had never been to school and I didn’t even know how to write. I am so happy I was able to escape the pain. You can bleed and you can die.”
Fit to marry
There is no delicate way to continue this story. An elderly woman with a knife, which was perhaps unwashed after previous use, would have cut Abigael, mutilated her. The Pokot tribe in north-western Kenya, of which she was a member, inflict circumcision at its most extreme. It is called infibulation. The clitoris and labia are removed and the girl’s legs are pressed together till the wound is almost closed. First intercourse will be difficult, the delivery of a child is sometimes fatal to mother, child, or both.
In Kongelai village, an elder defined the tradition: “It is a cultural thing practised from the beginning by our forefathers, a way of passing on the beliefs of the community. It is also a way of controlling the women to make sure they do not go with other men. It’s a permanent wound and also we lose some people. Now it is said they are not ready for marriage. So some of the people oppose it, but some say it is still the culture.”
Sitting amid Kongelai’s grassless aridity, no village elder accepted an opportunity to defend the practice. Chief Samson Nikasanke set the tone. “We work on awareness training. FGM has reduced and girls are now going to school like boys. We are working with chiefs and elders and the women’s network.” What recently was the fate of close to 100 per cent of the girls in West Pokot has now fallen by over one-quarter and probably by more in Kongelai.
Another elder added: “No one would marry those who have not gone through it. Then ActionAid came and there was a dispute between us. How can we relinquish our culture? They told us to send our girls to school. We said if we do when are we going to marry them off and get some animals? Then we found we were on the wrong side.”
Kongelai’s sub-county deputy commissioner confirmed: “FGM has gone down. We have done advocacy. Poverty was the problem. A man has no animals but has two or three girls. He has them circumcised and then married and 20 or 30 animals come to the farm so he is now a man in the community.”
A woman nearby interjected: “Men say there is no FGM. These men here do not believe in it, but others who won’t come to a meeting like this know how to hide girls and do it. But there has been a decrease over the last four years.”
To some, circumcision is still the alternative to an ongoing, unmarriageable childhood. But early marriage equals no education; ending it equals education and marriage at maturity.
Governments, accepting that FGM is wrong, often lack the reach and sometimes the will to halt it. Non-governmental organisations campaign across Africa. Nelson Komole, headmaster of the Kongelai Primary School, described the positive effect: “The number of girls completing class 8 (final primary year) is increasing. The women’s forums are sensitising the community and the girls.”
But at its base is man’s exertion of power – his belief that women’s unchecked libido demands this shocking control of their capacity for pleasure. Hence ActionAid’s programme encourages the engagement of the men alongside these more enlightened women to end it. Meanwhile, young girls increasingly rank education above the maintenance of custom and tradition. Purity Chemutai joined her village friend Abigael Nalem under the protection of the women’s network.
“When I went to school my parents beat me and said I should stop. I was told about the women’s network so I went there but my mother came and took me home and really beat me. Abigael told me to come to Kongelai. She said to me we are going to help our people and they will see the use of education in our village is vital. I feel if I go home, my parents will subject me to FGM so I want to stay in school. My parents would have married me off.”
Purity and Abigael now find refuge in the safety of Kogelai primary school where ActionAid Ireland’s child sponsors have funded the building of a dormitory for girls who fled from circumcision. Now these girls will never face it.
Chelongo says: “The community was looking for a circumciser and I said I can do the work without fear. When I myself was circumcised I felt the pain but the society didn’t allow that. It is better to undergo the pain and be accepted by society. Sex is painful but you put up with it. If a woman has difficulties during delivery or even dies, people ask why are others giving birth and not dying? You have been bewitched.”
Chepekoso says: “When I was 12 my parents subjected me to FGM. I was then married off and conceived. The baby couldn’t come out and there was no hospital nearby. I lost the baby. I was stitched but cut internally and never had another pregnancy. It was so painful I had to abstain from sex. My husband then rejected me.”
Chelongo says: “What made me stop was that 10 years ago one girl died. Also, sometimes during delivery a girl would be brought back to me to help her so I came to believe I was torturing the girls and came to understand that what I was doing was not good.”
In the dry outback of Kongelai, the campaign is making progress. Survivor Maria Chepekoso reminds us about FGM, once the lot of many local girls. Cheposalawi Chelongo, the former cutter, tells a story of redemption. And Abigael and Purity represent a new generation with the confidence to say “No”.