Janet has hard, suspicious eyes that suddenly break into soft smiles. At 14, she is already enjoying her second life, telling us about it with the pride of someone who has fought hard to write her own destiny.
“My parents had arranged a marriage for me with a 50-year-old man,” she begins. “Preparations for my circumcision ceremony had begun. I remembered how my sister had bled and cried after the cut.
So I ran away.” A tall, slender girl, she ran into the forests of Baringo County in Western Kenya and finally stopped after six days without a clear destination or food. “I drank from water springs. At night I would climb trees to escape attack.”
She would have made it to Uganda if she hadn’t collapsed before reaching the border in the marketplace in Kongelai, a rural settlement in West Pokot County. While closing down their stall as night fell, a woman and a young girl noticed the frightened, dirty, twig-thin bundle and asked: “What are you doing here all alone?”
Two years have passed since then and now Janet has become one of Theresa Chepution’s five daughters, the widow who sold fruit at the market. After giving her a good reviving and cleansing at the river, Theresa gave Janet a uniform and sent her to school because she couldn’t stand the fact that she was illiterate at her age.
And Janet could have never imagined that such a rigorous yet loving countrywoman would understand the core of her distress without the need to explain too much. Theresa had been subjected to the same fate Janet had been able to dodge. Married at a young age, her first two children were stillborn because infibulation had rendered her tissues rigid.
“I suffered a great deal,” she tells us today under the shade of her stilt houses for maize. “So I didn’t have my daughters cut. Listening to Janet, my pain aroused at the thought of how much our people’s traditions have wounded us.”
Her people are the Pokots, the predominant ethnic group in the Baringo and West Pokot Counties in Kenya, living also in the Karamoja region in Uganda that is visible just behind the hills from Kongelai.
They are still obstinately enclosed in a patriarchal society that measures their daughters’ worth by the quantity of cattle their future husbands will offer as a dowry.
And the mutat, the cutting and sewing up of the vagina, is the undisputed pre-nuptial ritual performed in order to turn a young, immature girl into a real woman who will later lose her virginity through the use of a goat’s horn to cut her open again on her wedding night, and will give birth to a child before she is 15 years old.
“According to Pokot culture, if you are not circumcised you remain a girl forever and are banned from all female duties including milking the animals,” Susan Krop, 37, tries to explain.
Like Janet, she also resisted forced marriage because she wanted to finish primary school. In Kongelai, she is one of only a handful of women who, in addition to Pokot language, speak a little English and perfect Kiswahili, the official language in Kenya.
This is also why she was elected Chair of the Women’s Network that counts 103 active members and two thousand supporters scattered among the manjata, the traditional mud huts along the Suam River.
This female synergy here is fostered by ActionAid. Since 2012, the Women’s Network has been committed to educating families on how harmful the burden of infibulation is, and explaining that true wealth is not measured by a dowry in cattle, but by the peace of mind of a girl who studies, can cultivate dreams and learn skills that will help the entire community shake off poverty.
Susan also got a beating from furious fathers, “But if we were able to convince the Ngoroko, we’ll be able to convince everyone else too within a few years,” she says, smiling. She is talking about the “warriors”, the young men who once fought for control of the pastures. They are extremely brutish and sexist, yet some of them have decided to join the Women’s Network and accepted wives who are uncut. “They are healthy, educated and improve our lives,” admits their spokesperson, Patrick Longureruk.
Two laws punish those who perform the cut and those who support it; a national Anti-FGM Board was established to oversee the problem and since 2014 a prosecution unit has been investigating cases throughout Kenya.
“But do you think the people around here even know it exists?” sighs Susan, who has come up with a more effective strategy to spare girls from the bloody ritual within these forsaken forests.
Notwithstanding their state of poverty, a group of foster mothers, currently 28, takes into their own homes girls fleeing the mutat and early forced marriages. “Rarely does a parent reclaim them. When the girls refuse to get married, the family loses the dowry and the girl isn’t worth anything. We foster mothers support each other in order to provide for them.”
The Women’s Network welcomes us with songs and dances in a clearing where they plan to build a centre for the girls they cannot put up in their own homes. Currently, the dormitory of the local school accommodates 30 little girls and adolescents, all with dark, troubled looks in their eyes.
This story is a chapter from UNCUT, a multimedia project by Emanuela Zuccalà, developed with the support of the “Innovation in Development Reporting Grant Program” of the European Journalism Centre, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and carried out in partnership with ActionAid and the cultural association Zona (zona.org/en).
Originally posted on Punch: