Edwin, Emmanuel and Keke are three brave men boldly speaking out against female genital mutilation (FGM). Despite receiving widespread criticism and even death threats, they continue to promote abandoning the practice in West Pokot, Kenya. They are powerful examples to others that FGM is not just a women's issue. It is an issue that affects everyone.
Edwin wants to save his three-year-old sister from FGM
Edwin, 14, lives in West Pokot, a region of Kenya where an estimated 75 per cent of girls endure the cut. Despite FGM being illegal since 2011, it is still widely considered a prerequisite for marriage.
Edwin's elder sister endured FGM and was married shortly after. She moved to another village to live with her husband and had three children. As a result, Edwin rarely sees her. "I only meet her during market days because she was married to a family who live in a rural place," he explained.
The teenager doesn't want his youngest sister, who is three, to face the same fate. He knows that if she stays at home that she may be forced to undergo FGM, so he hopes that she can avoid this by coming to study at a boarding school, just like him.
If she stays out there she will get these problems. She will be cut. She will get married. She will give birth and become a mother at a younger age.
Edwin's school is supported by ActionAid and offers a safe space for girls who want to escape FGM. Here boys and girls have the chance to learn about the harmful consequences of the procedure and the benefits of girls finishing their education so they can make more informed choices about their own bodies and futures.
Edwin explained: "If she stays out there she will get these problems. She will be cut. She will get married. She will give birth and become a mother at a younger age. But, I know that, once she is in school she can wait to get married until she is 30 years old even."
Edwin and some of his male friends have been campaigning against FGM. They have tried to influence village elders by explaining the short and long-term risks of girls being cut and pulled out of school. He said: "I remember a time when we came together and we said if our parents or the neighbourhood want to cut girls, we'll report the issue to the authorities."
He and his friends faced resistance and 'harsh words' at the start of their campaign, but after combining forces with the local chief, who holds a government post, people were more receptive to their message.
I would love to have my children without complications and to lead a good life.
Edwin, who wants to be a pilot when he grows up, also said that when the time comes for him to get married he would prefer to marry a woman who has not had FGM. "I'd marry a girl who has not been cut because I wouldn't want to experience the challenges that girls who have been cut experience," he said. "I would love to have my children without complications and to lead a good life."
Emmanuel will never let his daughters have FGM
Emmanuel, 44, said he will do anything to protect his three daughters from FGM: "My girls will never, ever, undergo FGM. My daughters are my life and I cannot do that. It is an injustice. It will rob them of their rights. It will cut their education short, and it will make my girls not have a safe path in life.”
Emmanuel’s stance puts him at odds with many other parents in West Pokot. He explained that many parents still strongly endorse FGM because a girl who is uncut is traditionally considered “unclean” and will not fetch as many cows as part of her dowry.
My girls will never, ever, undergo FGM. FGM will rob them of their rights.
This proud dad has different dreams for his girls - Sharon, 10, Rebecca, 14, and Shamma, aged seven. He wants them to be able to make their own choices and believes that alerting parents to the risks of the harmful practice is crucial. As a Christian pastor, he preaches the anti-FGM message to his 100-strong congregation. He also speaks at events organised by the Kongelai Women’s Network, a local group of brave women doing amazing work to campaign against FGM and supported by ActionAid.
Speaking out has not been easy though; Emmanuel has faced much opposition. “If a man tries to talk about FGM, they will say, 'You are not allowed to talk about it, these are women's matters.' ” When Emmanuel started to campaign against FGM 10 years ago he faced threats. “The reaction was so terrible," he said. "I was told never again to talk about the negative effects of FGM".
As a boy growing up in the village, Emmanuel knew very little about the cut – it was just something that girls had to go through. It was only after he went to a theological college, and then university, that he found out about the devastating impact it can have.
“The negative effects of FGM include loss of blood and bleeding to death,” he said. “There is also psychological torture. For the rest of her life, the child who undergoes FGM will be having bad memories of the act.”
Emmanuel now tells villagers about the risk of obstructed labour that girls who have had FGM will face when they fall pregnant. He also points to role models of women who have not undergone FGM and managed to secure university places or good government jobs.
For the rest of her life, the child who undergoes FGM will be having bad memories of the act.
That’s why he commends the tireless grassroots work of the Kongelai Women’s Network, which has 107 members. “Although they have received very sharp criticism, they stood firm. They don’t lose heart, because if you lose heart, then these girls will not get their rights.”
Keke works to enforce the law banning FGM
57-year-old Keke Ekudo Ngolengiro is a father of two girls. He is also the assistant chief in his village in Kongelai, a role which includes eradicating FGM.
Keke said poverty is a driving factor behind girls being cut. “If your family was poor, that poverty ends the day you get married,” he said. Keke tries to convince parents of the economic benefits of not cutting their daughters. He tells them that an educated girl can get a job and contribute much more to the household income than a married daughter who had delivered a one-off dowry.
“When a girl studies and gets a job and gets married, she will still be of great importance to the family, as she brings in more wealth,” he said.
As a government representative, it is Keke’s job to impose the law. "I am a public figure in the village, so I have to stand for the law and do what is right,” he said. “And I also have the authority to arrest and prosecute whoever is found guilty."
Keke explained that because some parents still see FGM as a cornerstone of their culture, cases of girls being cut are sometimes driven underground.
“Parents are even afraid of taking their girls to hospital even when they nearly bleed to death,” he said. “So sometimes they hide them in their home until the girls pass away.”
Keke said it is vital to raise awareness of the dangers of FGM, and he works with ActionAid to do this. “We go for meetings with ActionAid to sensitise people against FGM,” he said.
Parents are even afraid of taking their girls to hospital even when they nearly bleed to death.
Keke’s daughters are married and in their 30s, and they have not been cut. He said they serve as role models of how girls can still get married and get a dowry even if they have not had FGM.
Keke also praised the Kongelai Women’s Network: “Every village has a women’s network representative, and so that has really helped in spreading the message against FGM”.
Please support our work to end FGM in Kenya. A donation from you can help build more community safe houses which offer protection for girls escaping FGM and also a base for the Kongelai Women's Network to continue their vital work.
Photos: Ashley Hamer /ActionAid