What you need to know:
- In pastoralist communities, FGM transforms girls to women who are then married off in exchange for livestock.
- According to the priest, uncircumcised girls are considered ‘unripe’ and outcasts who cannot mingle with girls who have gone through the knife.
- Although the government banned the practice, FGM is still dominant among the Pokot, Ilchamus and Endorois communities.
Reverend Christopher Chochoi was at home when a call came through. A girl was battling for her life at the local dispensary and the nurses thought spiritual healing would help. The year was 2001.
Without hesitation, he rushed to the facility. Sadly, all he could do was administer the last rites. But for a man who believes in the power of prayer, he called on the Lord until the girl took her last breath. He held her hands until all the warmth was gone. She was only 14.
“I still remember that day at Nginyang’ Dispensary. The girl had taken poison after being forced to marry an old man. It was painful losing a young soul due to retrogressive cultural practices. I decided to start a rescue centre,” recalls the 60-year-old cleric.
Exchange for livestock
From the sad experience, Cana Girls’ Rescue Centre in Nginyang’, Tiaty Sub-county was born to provide refuge to victims of abuse in a community that only sees girls as a source of dowry. It rescues those who have fled forced marriages and female genital mutilation (FGM). In pastoralist communities, FGM transforms girls to women who are then married off in exchange for livestock.
Started in 2002, the centre hosts girls from as far as Samburu, Turkana, Ilchamus and the Tugen communities.
“In the Pokot community, women have no voice; they are not involved in decision making. I started with one girl who had fled forced marriage in Churo, more than 100km away. I had no structures then, so I hosted her in my house. Five other girls joined her,” Reverend Chochoi narrates.
Hosted 12 girls
Fortunately, a British donor built him a permanent house which hosted more than 12 girls. Another donor later built another shelter accommodating 48 girls.
“We now have two modern dormitories which accommodate more than 68 girls. Since its inception, more than 200 girls have passed through the home; some have since graduated from the university,” says the cleric.
He has won accolades from anti-FGM crusaders for his work. There are now 19 girls in various secondary schools from the centre and more in primary.
“Those girls are my responsibility. I provide all their needs. I have to prove to the world that it is important to educate girls,” offers the cleric. His efforts have helped change the mindset of their parents, who now see the importance of educating their daughters as opposed to marrying them off.
“I am happy some parents from the Pokot community have now seen the importance of education and have taken their children, especially girls to school,” says Reverend Chochoi.
The father of five says it hasn’t been easy to keep the centre going due to the expenses and time involved. He relies on well-wishers, churches and non-government organisations (NGOs). The local administration also assists with food. Some girls have been educated through the constituency bursary funds.
“I made a decision to put a smile on the faces of the abused girls.”
At least 10 of the girls have since graduated from universities and colleges.
“My prayer is not only for these girls to prosper but for the community to embrace women and treat them well. To achieve this, together with churches and NGOs, we hold forums to sensitise and change the mindset of pastoral communities,” says the cleric.
According to the priest, uncircumcised girls are considered ‘unripe’ and outcasts who cannot mingle with girls who have gone through the knife. Although the government banned the practice, FGM is still dominant among the Pokot, Ilchamus and Endorois communities.
The allure of getting over 50 cows as bride price for a cut girl compared to the uncut continues pushes parents to engage in the practice. It is rampant in the August and December holidays. Persuading locals to abandon the practice is dangerous.
“We’ve faced hostility from parents who come to the rescue home demanding to take their daughters back to undergo FGM, forcing us to seek the help of police and members of the provincial administration.”