Domitila Chesang’: Why I abandoned teaching to rescue girls from FGM

Domtila Chesang' during an interview at Makutano in West Pokot County on May 05, 2023. She has rescued thousands of girls from FGM and conducted countless awareness campaigns.

Photo credit: Jared Nyataya | Nation

What you need to know:

  • At the age of 11, Domitila Chesang' witnessed the horrifying reality of FGM at  a ceremony in her village, sparking her lifelong crusade against the vice. 
  • Years later, she established the I-Rep Foundation and has since rescued thousands of girls at risk of FGM. 
  • Despite numerous challenges and threats, her unwavering determination has empowered communities to abandon FGM.

At the age of 11, Domitila Chesang’, a curious young girl managed to sneak to a female genital mutilation (FGM) ceremony that was going on in her home village.

While such ceremonies were strictly meant for mature women and the girls undergoing the cut, Domitila, eager to see her cousins partake in this 'important' cultural practice, managed to sneak in.

The ceremony was in a small forest near their home in Chepararia village, Pokot South Constituency, in West Pokot County.

“While growing up, FGM was the way of life and fashionable. Every girl looked forward to it. I too, looked up to the day I would be cut. That is why I decided to sneak and see my cousins undergo this important rite of passage,” Domitila says when we meet her at Kapenguria town.

However, what she witnessed that chilly morning was horrifying. The massive bleeding that followed the cutting sent shivers down her spine.

“When I saw what the cutting entailed, I realised there was more to FGM that I thought. There was a lot of screaming, drowned by the voices of women as they belted out tunes that go with such ceremonies. There was so much blood flowing, which traumatised me,” she recounts.

Terrified, she ran back home, realising that her turn to undergo the same ordeal was fast approaching.

Determined to avoid the cut, Domitila confronted her mother, demanding the truth about FGM.

“I made it clear to her if I had to undergo the cut, then it would be done in hospital. She agreed reluctantly,” she recalls.

Ms Chesang' speaks to a victim of FGM from Maros village in Sigor, West Pokot County on May 04, 2023. To ensure the continuity of the campaign, she has mentored other young girls and women to engage in the anti-FGM work.

Photo credit: Jared Nyataya | Nation

But Domitila had other plans. At 12, she convinced her parents to enrol her in Ortum Girls School, far from home, knowing the risk of being subjected to FGM would be lower in a boarding school

Returning for the December holidays that year, Domitila was furious to learn her younger sister had been cut.

This ignited a strong desire to fight against the outlawed cultural practice. Armed with nothing but her voice, she embarked on a campaign against FGM, recruiting two like-minded friends to amplify their message.

To make the campaign more impactful, she recruited two of her friends who were also against the cut. She became a vocal advocate against FGM.

Domitila's advocacy grew stronger in high school, where she organised talks in primary schools, appealing to girls to reject the outdated practice. Her efforts bore fruit, with hundreds of girls, including two of her younger sisters, escaping the knife.

In 2009, while pursuing a Bachelor's in Education at Moi University, Domitila intensified her drive, organizing community dialogues in churches and schools to enlighten people on the dangers of FGM.

After graduating in 2013, she shocked her parents by abandoning her teaching career to rescue girls at risk of being cut.

To make this goal a reality, she registered a Community based organisation (CBO) Kepsten Rotwo Tipin (Let’s Abandon the Knife) which she later rebranded to I am Responsible (I-Rep Foundation) in 2019.

Through the organisation, Domitila has since rescued thousands of girls and conducted countless awareness campaigns. Her work, supported by well-wishers and donors, relies on referrals from authorities about girls at risk.

Cross-border FGM

Challenges abound, from financial constraints to high community expectations and treacherous terrain hindering rescue efforts. Cross-border FGM, where girls are forcibly taken to neighbouring Uganda, is another major issue.

“The only way to eliminate cross-border FGM is by putting up police stations at the borders points, which must also have gender desks to handle cases related to gender violence,” she notes.

Despite threats, Domitila soldiers on, with five villages having abandoned FGM completely.

“Some of the villages where we have managed to completely wipe-out FGM include Ortum and Lolian. Here, we have rescued 118 girls who are now undertaking their studies through scholarship. The first batch are now in university, colleges, secondary and primary schools," she proudly states.

Young girls

To ensure the continuity of the campaign, she has mentored other young girls and women to engage in the anti-FGM work.

About 10 years down the line, her campaign has impacted about 5,000 girls in West Pokot, which is 22 FGM hotspot counties with high prevalence of FGM in the country.

Her work aligns with the Kenya Demographic Health Survey 2022 report, which shows the national FGM prevalence dropping from 38 per cent in 1998 to 15 per cent in 2022.

And even though she has had her low moments, Domitila finds solace in the visible impact of her work and the joy of meeting the girls' needs.

“When I look back and see the girls I rescued in school or have made it in life, I feel relieved and happy,” the anti-FGM crusader says.

She boasts several awards as a recognition of her work. She was presented with a Queen’s Young Leaders Award in 2017 in acknowledgement of her work to end FGM through her I-Rep organisation.

The Queen’s Young Leader Award recognises and celebrates exceptional people aged between 18-29 years from across the Commonwealth with leading projects in tackling global issues including education, climate change, gender equality, mental health, disability and equality.

She is also a recipient of African Youth Leader of the Year by the Independent Pan Africa Youth Parliament in 2017, the Head of State’s Commendation (HSC) and the Shujaa awards presented by retired President Uhuru Kenyatta in 2020 and 2021, respectively.