What comes to your mind when you hear of Tana River County?
Perhaps an area prone to drought, and sometimes erratic rainfall, or a home to some major tourist site in the country, one of them being the longest river in Kenya.
But besides these natural and geographical attributes, Tana River is one of the counties that, for years, has been associated with female genital mutilation (FGM), being home to ethnic groups that still carry out the most extreme type of female circumcision.
Tana River County also boasts being home to the Watta community, a small ethnic group -- on the brink of extinction -- that has managed to completely do away with this age-old tradition.
The Watta community’s story is a success tale in the war against female circumcision, not just in Tana River County, but Kenya as a whole.
Since 2006, female circumcision has not been conducted among the Watta, a rare occurrence in a community that once circumcised girls as young as four years.
Miriam Mbode, 45, a resident of Hamesa Village, Tana River County, and a mother of six, including two daughters whom she has protected from this practice, says that at first it wasn’t easy to let go of this tradition.
“Despite going through many challenges during childbirth as a result of being circumcised as a girl, it took relentless advocacy and many sensitisation gatherings to finally convince me, like the rest of the community, to finally abandon a practice that had been part of us since time immemorial,” she says.
Fatuma Hajibu, 75, is a reformed circumciser, who previously had practised this role for more than 15 years, and who has turned out to be one of the most outspoken anti-female circumcision campaigners.
Pain associated with the practice
She says that, despite coming face to face with the pain associated with the practice, she still found it hard to believe that the practice brought about harmful consequences.
“Apart from fulfilling the expectation of our tradition, during my days as a circumciser, I made a living out of it. I would earn up to Sh1,000 for every girl I circumcised and that kept us going as a family, financially,” she says.
To convince such an old population hasn’t been easy, and it is a success story that has been borne out a vigorous tooth and nail combat, in most cases including a strong advocacy and sensitisation programme directed towards the older generation.
Nastehe Abubakar, an anti-FGM crusader and chairperson of the Dayaa Women's Group, which has been at the forefront in the war against the practice, credits the success to relentless advocacy, not just through face to face meetings within villages, but also via radio stations.
“We have also been using victims maimed or deformed by the practice to relay the horrors of this practice, as well as demystifying myths like a woman who hasn’t been circumcised shouldn’t be allowed into a mosque, or cannot get married, or the practice reduces promiscuity,” she adds.
It is a trend that has inspired other communities within the county, capturing the attention of religious leaders within the area, who have taken up the mantle and taken the war to other communities within the county, which still hold dear the old practice.
Sheikh Ali Santur Dalo, Vice-Chairman of the Wardey Community in Gwano Location, Galole constituency, an ethnic group which still practises infibulation, says the Watta community’s story has been a ray of light in the battle against female circumcision within their community.
“Through their efforts, we have gained the courage to speak about things we wouldn’t even think of talking about. I’m talking about sensitive matters like how the practice affects women not just during childbirth, but even their menstruation, as well as their sex lives,” he says.
However, even as this great success story continues to influence other communities, danger looms that maybe it won’t be long before the practice creeps back into this ethnic group which is surrounded by communities that still hold dear the practice.
“Yes, we have made great strides in this fight, but we fear that our children who haven’t been circumcised, could be influenced by their peers from other communities. Our children go to the same schools with their peers from the Somali, Borana, Orma and Wardey communities, which still practise FGM, and this could create an environment for stigma and victimisation,” says Mbode.
Abdi Hassan, community King of the Wardey ethnic group, and one of the most vocal anti-FGM council of elders campaigners, says the danger of the progress being rolled back could also emanate from the fact that most circumcisers who have since abandoned their work, have no source of livelihood.
“Women who once relied on this job for upkeep have nothing to lean back on, and this could be problematic and take the community back to where it was,” he says.
Eisha Godhantu Guyole, a 64-year-old reformed circumciser, says that although she regrets playing a role in endangering the health of many women through the practice, it isn’t easy to keep up the fight, especially on an empty stomach.
A source of income
“With whatever I got from circumcising girls, I would comfortably take care of my children. Right now, I do not have a source of income and, with lack of money, comes hunger,” she says.
One of the greatest hurdles has been uprooting the entrenched misinformation about the culture, among those who, although they understand the harm of the tradition, still believe in some aspects of the rite.
Isaac Funani, a Watta village elder in Hamesa Village, says that despite being aware of horrific tales of health disasters faced by women and girls who have undergone the cut, it is still difficult to completely do away with the age-old tradition.
The main reason some are reluctant to abandon this culture, he says, is that they believe that with FGM, mothers can monitor whether their daughters have had sex or not.
“Traditionally, female circumcision was done such that the vagina was sealed, and only a small opening was left for urinating and passing menses. The mother would monitor the size of the hole every time the daughter came home, to ensure that the size remained the same. This sort of prevented the girls from engaging in irresponsible sexual behaviour before marriage,” he says.
According to Funani, although it sounds barbaric, this was the surety the father had of getting bride price from suitors.
That is why Saddia Hussein, an anti-FGM activist and human rights champion, says there is a need to educate people in their environmental context, instead of forcibly trying to sway them from what they have been doing for ages.
According to Saddia, the time has come to highlight how womanhood is a nightmare in these communities.
“Let us talk about how, during menstruation, women and girls grapple with infections due to the clogged vagina, or how painful it is to have sex such that on the wedding night, you have to be whisked far away from your homestead so that your family does not hear you scream as your husband tries to have his way. We have to tell how some men are forced to use knives during sex to cut the vagina so that they can penetrate, and how childbirth is a horrendous experience having to go through episiotomy every time you give birth,” she says.