I live in Kitale, in the eastern part of Kenya and I’ve been working for ActionAid since 2005. I was born and belong to this community, but unlike the majority of girls as I was growing up, I was lucky. Instead of being forced to have female genital mutilation (FGM) and enter into early marriage, my parents gave me an education.
From social outcast to women’s rights champion
Female genital mutilation is the worst violation that a girl can go through. But a girl is told to have it by her mother, and so the women and girls in this part of Kenya think it’s normal. My parents didn’t want us to go through these customs though. My father was a primary school teacher you see, so instead he ensured that my sisters and I made it through school, despite unbelievable peer pressure.
It came at a cost. My parents’ decision was so radical and against tradition, that when my father took this stance, his own family excluded him. We were mocked and bullied by other girls. It was very hard, but we believed it was the right thing to do.
It is because of going to school that I became interested in women’s rights and had the opportunity to work for ActionAid. But if girls aren’t given the opportunity to find out about life outside of the community, then how do they know that another life is out there?
My passion is helping the women
I am a Programme Manager for ActionAid Kenya. This means I coordinate all the ActionAid projects in my area, give leadership on what we should do and link our local rights programme with other country programmes. A large part of my job is to mobilise – which means I go out to enlighten girls about their rights, about the FGM laws and how they can come together to fight it. My passion is helping other women.
There are many challenges to my work, especially changing the attittudes of men, but I have seen real progress in my country. In Kongelai, for example, half an hour from where I live, we have seen more and more women joining efforts to fight against FGM and early child marriage. This is because of the women’s network there, which was supported by ActionAid in 2014 to carry out training on female genital mutilation, targeting old men and young boys and girls.
As a result of ActionAid funding, in the last year the Kongelai Women’s Network has:
- expanded to three new constituencies, directly helping over 1,800 new people
- reached 30,000 people with messages of abandoning FGM, though radio broadcasts
- bought an acre of land, where they are building huts to hold meetings
With increased awareness among the community, many girls are daring to run away from their homes to seek help.
In the last year the Kongelai women have rescued 35 new girls who have come to us to avoid female genital mutilation and early child marriage. We hope that we can help them the way we’ve helped girls like Janet.
Janet’s story of escaping FGM
Janet was only 13 when she ran away from her family to escape female genital mutilation over a year ago. She travelled for six days through the bush in bare feet to find help. One of the leaders of the Kongelai Women’s Netowork, Teresa, took her in.
Since then, we’ve found out that after Janet disappeared her parents were worried and told her elder brother to find her and get her to come home, but Janet refused because she was not sure if her father had changed his mind yet about forcing her to be cut.
‘When my brother was sent to look for me I was scared,’ Janet said, ‘but Teresa went to meet him and explained to him that the law states that all children must go to school and that FGM is illegal, so people who break this law need to be arrested.’
A year on, Teresa is still looking after Janet, protecting her from her father and supporting her through school. Before Janet ran away she couldn’t even write her own name. Now, she is top of her class:
“I am happy to be in Lodupup Primary School; I am in grade 5 and was ranked position 3 from the total 29 pupils in my class. My best friend is called Damaris Chelimo. I like her because she is friendly. She welcomed me to their school last year when I was new.”
Zero Tolerance to FGM
On Friday 6th February it is the International Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM, so we’re having a celebration. The 35 girls who have come to us will present the launch of our new policy, which outlines the roles of each person in the community, including the men, and how everyone must respect girls’ rights.
This is an exciting milestone for us, but there are still many more communities to reach, and many more girls to rescue.
Female genital mutilation is so terrible for girls in Kenya – the effects can last a lifetime.
Photos: Kate Holt/ActionAid