For a young girl subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM) the pain does not end with the cut of the blade. On her wedding night, she relives the trauma. When she becomes pregnant she faces the prospect of life-threatening complications. Right now, in Africa, three million girls are at risk of FGM.
5-year-old Irene is at risk of FGM
Irene, pictured above, is only five but she is at risk of FGM. She lives in a part of Kenya where up to 75 per cent of girls endure the dangerous procedure, also known as female circumcision.
FGM entails cutting a girl's clitoris and labia, often using unsterilised blades and knives. It can cause severe bleeding, infections, infertility and even death.
Irene’s mum, Christine, is opposed to the practice – having endured it herself at the age of 11 – but feels powerless to save her daughter. “I know FGM is bad,” said Christine, 17.
“It has destroyed many people and even killed some. But even if I try to stop my daughter being cut it won’t be enough. When she grows up my husband will tell me ‘she is a grown-up and should be like the other girls’.”
In Kongelai, where Christine and Irene live, parents face a difficult choice. They are under pressure for their daughters to be married and have security. Many are unaware of the damaging health complications of FGM and see it as a necessary prerequisite for marriage.
Safe centres and women anti-FGM campaigners
That's why ActionAid tries to tackle the problem on many fronts. We support local women to run safe centres for girls who flee their homes to escape the threat of FGM, where they receive food, shelter and an education.
We also support a network of more than 100 local women who are committed to ending FGM - the Kongelai Women's Network. Most have endured FGM themselves. They understand the sensitivities but are unwavering in their determination to prevent others from suffering as they did.
Going from village to village, the women talk about the long-term health problems caused by the practice, which was outlawed in 2011 but has simply been driven underground.
Christine has suffered from FGM
Fourteen-year-old Christine, with her seven-month-old son Amos, knows these problems only too well. She was subjected to FGM at 12 and began bleeding profusely.
“When I was cut, I nearly died,” she said. “Because it’s against the law, they hid us in the bush. So we couldn’t even get good care there.” Thankfully, Christine survived but as soon as she healed her parents arranged her marriage.
At 13, Christine became pregnant. She experienced obstructed labour and struggled to give birth naturally. After a painful caesarean section, she had her son Amos.
When I was cut, I nearly died.
Now, at an age when she should be in school, Christine is dreading the next pregnancy and the complications that might arise as a result of FGM.
“I would advise girls not to go through FGM because God created them like that," she said. "They are beautiful and good the way they are.”
This message is amplified more than a hundredfold by members of the Kongelai Women's Network, whose stories prove that change can and is being made.
Margaret, an FGM survivor protecting her granddaughters
Margaret, 54, was just 13 when she was cut. "You are told you should not scream,” she said. “You shouldn’t even show that you are feeling pain because it will be a bad sign. FGM makes it difficult for a girl when she has to sleep with a man."
It hurts me to think a girl’s body is being destroyed.
After the trauma she went through and subsequent problems during childbirth, Margaret chose not to have her daughters and granddaughters cut. When criticised by family members she simply shrugs and tells them: “I know something you don’t.”
Margaret, a farmer, learned about the link between FGM and obstructed labour at a talk arranged by ActionAid. She joined the Women's Network and began visiting neighbouring villages to highlight the risks. Her achievements include persuading a cutter to give up the profession.
"I told her it is wrong and you might get into trouble with the law," she said. “It hurts me to think a girl’s body is being destroyed."
These stories are all too common, and that’s why we have launched a joint campaign with ActionAid Kenya to increase awareness and funds to help more girls escape FGM.
A donation from you will help to build new safe centres for girls at risk of FGM, where they can go back to school and rebuild their lives free from fear.
And we won't stop there. Our centres will be community hubs, where Margaret and other members of the Kongelai Women's Network can come together and continue the fight against FGM.
Photos: Ashley Hamer/ActionAid