How greedy chiefs undermine fight against FGM and encourage early marriage in West Pokot


A traditionalist displays her tools of trade.

Photo credit: File

For a sum of up to Sh50,000 or a bull, a rogue chief in West Pokot County will participate in female genital mutilation (FGM) or oversee young girls being forced into early marriages by offering protection to perpetrators of the outlawed vices.

Nation.Africa has learnt how some greedy and rogue local government administrators have exploited the vices to enrich themselves through bribes they collect to cover up the outlawed traditional practices.

This explains why the practices banned in Kenya continue in West Pokot communities under the noses of local administrators.

Some chiefs and their assistants are on the spot for abusing their power and being compromised to facilitate the social ills that have destroyed the lives of many young girls in West Pokot County.

Nation.Africa has established that some chiefs in remote areas are colluding with female circumcisers and parents who practice FGM by hiding, supporting and protecting them from the long arm of the law.

In particular, areas such as Alale, Kodich, Masol, Kiwawa, Nauyapong, Suam, Kong'elai, Suam, Kodich, Kasei, Konyao, Lelan, Tapach, Endough, Sook, Lomut, Weiwei, Masol, Sekerr and Riwo are areas where the vice is still prevalent and where chiefs are wealthy and lead ostentatious and questionable lifestyles.

Some have magnificent bungalows in remote villages, while dozens of cattle and camels and business premises dot the countryside.

One chief is said to have three large cars and many cattle, while others have several wives and own many acres of land and hotels.

Many buildings, such as those at Amakuriat and Alale centres in North Pokot, are owned by chiefs.

FGM was criminalised in Kenya in 2011 when the Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act (2011) was passed by the Kenyan Parliament on 30 September and came into force on 4 October.

Years later, the practice continues unnoticed because of the secrecy surrounding it. Some local communities hide behind keshas (night prayers) to carry out the practice.

"Cases are not reported by the chiefs, who in turn receive money or cattle to hide and protect the perpetrators and allow the banned traditional rites to continue. A chief is given Shs50,000 or a bull as a bribe to hush up incidents," said an Alale resident who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of backlash.

Our sources tell us that many chiefs have enriched themselves from the proceeds of the banned practices and own a lot of land because they allow the vices to be practised in secret.

"Many live like kings because they are well rewarded by the perpetrators of FGM who fear the law. You will find many driving big cars and living in bungalows.

Some have big businesses and own large herds of cattle, but they don't earn that much," another resident said.

Our sources say the administrators need to be involved from the beginning. The process starts with the perpetrators planning the vices and informing the chiefs well in advance so that the administrators can defend them in case information leaks out.

"They secretly collude with the perpetrators," said one source.

The source told us that some chiefs from the Alale area had previously been summoned and warned by the county security team for compromising the fight against vices.

"The county security team is aware of this and that is why the officers came here. I have even given some names to the authorities," said another source. 

According to locals in the affected areas, many chiefs work remotely over the phone as they are based in larger towns such as Kapenguria, where they spend most of their time.

In the case of early marriages, our sources tell us that the men who eye the teenagers plan their moves with the full knowledge of the local administrators.

"The husbands give cows or money to the local administrators to protect them when they run off with the young girls," one resident claimed.

There are allegations that some chiefs even attend the FGM ceremonies in the middle of the night and have never been arrested.

"They should be arrested and charged like any other criminal," demanded a concerned local.

The Kenya Demographic and Health Survey 2022 shows that FGM in the country has declined from 38 per cent in 1998 to 15 per cent in 2022, and from 21 per cent in 2014. But the figures could be higher, as the practice continues under a cloud of secrecy.

Many cross-border cases of FGM and early forced marriage have been reported, particularly in North Pokot sub-county, which borders neighbouring Uganda. Anti-FGM campaigns in the region face many challenges due to border gaps and lack of witnesses to testify in court.

The Prohibition of FGM Act states that if the act results in death, the perpetrator will be sentenced to life imprisonment. It also provides for other harsher penalties for perpetrators, but these provisions have done little to deter those who continue to facilitate the practice, with girls aged 12-17 still being subjected to the brutal act.

The Pokot Council of Elders says cases of FGM are still on the rise in the region.

"Chiefs should take a stand and refuse to be compromised. They should follow the law and not allow any vice in their jurisdiction," said the chairman of the Pokot Council of Elders, Mr John Muok.

A former paramount chief, Mr Muok said some elected leaders were also guilty because they bail out perpetrators of FGM when they are arrested.

"Most leaders don't speak publicly about FGM issues for fear of being voted out of office," Mr Muok said.

Teresa Cheptoo, World Vision's child protection officer in the county, said women campaigning against the practice had been forced to shelter hundreds of girls who had fled their homes to escape the violent cut.

"The government should protect the innocent girls and prosecute parents who are leading the practice," she said.

"Cross-border FGM and early marriages are a challenge for both Kenya and Uganda because many perpetrators hide in these places and go to their relatives on either side to hide from security officials. Many girls from Uganda come to Kenya to be cut because of the severe penalties in their country. Some from West Pokot go to Turkana where there is no FGM to be cut," she said.

Ms Cheptoo criticised the practice, describing it as a violation of girls' rights to education, health, freedom and dignity.

"The risks include heavy bleeding, development of sepsis, urinary tract infections, cysts and infertility," she said.

She added that West Pokot County is one of the leading counties for FGM in Kenya and urged political leaders to come on board and help in the fight.

"Fear of voter backlash has been cited as a major obstacle to ending FGM in many pastoral areas. Some politicians don't want to talk about it for fear of losing votes," she said.

She said some chiefs have obstructed efforts to end the practice, preferring instead to collect bribes.

"They have complicated the struggle. Whoever wants to marry a minor gives money. As long as there is money, they are all good," she claimed.

"Because their positions are so powerful, no one questions them. The chiefs were there before the anti-FGM law came into force, and we wonder why they have never been committed to ending the vice. They should be prepared for a tough fight," she said.

Local elected county assembly members are also accused of promoting the practice for their own selfish interests.

There is a case of an MCA who once paid Sh200,000 to bail out an FGM perpetrator. This shows that the community is not willing to fight the vice," said the World Vision official.

And now Pokot North Sub County Deputy County Commissioner James Ajuang has put the chiefs and their assistants on notice, saying they will have to submit weekly reports on school attendance.

"We want them to map and report every Friday. Other areas have stopped FGM and I wonder why it still exists in West Pokot," the administrator said.

"The fight against FGM is the responsibility of the government, not NGOs. We will deal with chiefs who sleep on the job," he said.

Mr Ajuang said they were working with local NGOs and leaders to intensify monitoring and prosecution of FGM perpetrators, noting that much work still needed to be done to eradicate the practice.

"This is an entrenched culture and you cannot eradicate a culture all at once. But one day we hope to end it and have more girls in school," he said.

Some reformed circumcisers, as well as perpetrators and victims, confirmed to Nation.Africa that they used to bribe chiefs to avoid arrest.

But Pokot North Sub County Deputy County Commissioner James Ajuang said some chiefs were doing a commendable job in fighting FGM, while the few who still support it were doing so for cultural reasons.

"Some don't fight the vice, but at the moment I have no evidence of chiefs being bribed over FGM," he told Nation.Africa.