In the UK 1st September means back to school. No doubt some parents are frantically making sure their children are fully equipped for the new school year, while many girls and boys are wishing the summer holidays would never end. But in Kenya, when children return to the classroom, some faces will almost certainly be missing - the faces of girls. Girls who are absent not by choice. Not because they don't want to study. But because during the holidays they have undergone female genital mutilation (FGM).
According to a recent Kenyan government report, the ratio of boys to girls in primary schools is 100:92 and 100:64 for secondary school. This sharp 30% decline in girls attending secondary education has been attributed to FGM and early marriage.
Celina's female pupils are dropping out of school
Celina is a teacher and lives in Kongelai, a part of western Kenya where up to 75 percent of girls endure FGM. The practice entails cutting a girl's clitoris and labia, which is traditionally considered as a rite of passage into womanhood. Once a girl is cut the countdown to early marriage and pregnancy begins.
Every year Celina watched with growing alarm as the number of pre-teen girls in her school dwindled. After the summer holidays a significant number of her 11 to 12-year-old female pupils never returned.
The 45-year-old maths teacher had a strong hunch as to why: that girls had undergone female genital mutilation during the school break.
For every 100 boys, there are 30% fewer girls in school at secondary level than at primary level.
"They were dropping out at class six or five [age 11 to 12]," says Celina. "After attending those practices [FGM], they just disappear. They get married and their life just goes like that."
Celina could not bear knowing that her students were losing out on their education because of FGM. She decided to take action by joining forces with members of staff at ActionAid Kenya. Together they ran awareness-raising sessions at parents’ days and also told the girls about the negative effects of FGM.
After attending those practices [FGM], they just disappear. They get married and their life just goes like that.
She says the campaigning work has had a positive impact. Enrolment numbers have increased and even girls who have become pregnant have been encouraged to return to school. Now two of Celina's top pupils are teenage mothers: "Education has no limit," she told them, to encourage their return.
Celina is also a patron of a girls' forum and works with the Kongelai Women's Network. She says that ActionAid awareness-raising sessions have helped young girls to understand that women from the network will help them flee forced marriage.
David's mother regrets dropping out of school
David, a 26-year-old boys' school teacher has seen at first hand the devastating consequences of FGM cutting girls' education short.
His mother was cut aged 15 and married soon after. She deeply regrets it, and that her education was brought to a halt. “Maybe we could have been teachers, we could have been doctors,” she told David.
FGM has been a great disaster in our community. It has interfered with the development of the community.
David also recalls how a girl from his village was due to become the first female from his community to go to secondary school. But her dreams were dashed after she was pressurised to undergo FGM. She got married and had children but her husband could not support her. Now she scrapes a living by burning trees and selling charcoal.
“That was so bitter to us, and that girl was from our community,” said David. “FGM has been a great disaster in our community. It has interfered with the development of the community. Development goes hand in hand with education.”
David urges his teenage male students to tell their parents and community members about the negative effects of FGM and the value of sending their daughters, as well as their sons, to school.
Edwin is scared for his three-year-old sister
Edwin, 14, is also very upset about the impact FGM has had on his family. His much-loved elder sister was cut, taken out of school, married off and has now had three children. Edwin hardly ever sees her, as her husband's family live far away, and he really misses her.
Edwin is terrified that his younger sister's life will turn out the same way.
He says, "If she stays out there [at their family's home] 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's little sister is only three years old. She has no knowledge of FGM or marriage yet, but he does, and he is desperate to protect her before it is too late. Edwin wants her to attend a boarding school like his, which is supported by ActionAid and protects girls who want to escape FGM.
The school has a community safe centre, which provides new homes for girls fleeing FGM and the chance to finish their education in safety. The girls are given psychosocial support and attend weekly forums where they learn about their rights, and how to say no to harmful traditional practices like FGM and child marriage.
The girls are supported by ActionAid's networks of local women, who use the safe centres as a base for their work to stamp out FGM in their community.
If she stays, she will be cut. She will get married. She will give birth and become a mother at a younger age.
By making a donation to ActionAid today, you can make a difference. You can help fund community safe centres. You can support vital work being done to raise awareness of the negative effects of FGM. And you can help protect girls like Edwin's sister from having their lives cut brutally short.
Photos: Ashley Hamer/ActionAid