Inside the life of a female circumciser

Isnino Imole Tono, a reformed former circumciser speaks to Nation.Africa in Garsen, Tana River County on February 01, 2023. 

Photo credit: Francis Nderitu | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Isnino Tono is a reformed traditional circumciser who now walks the talk in the fight against FGM.
  • She experienced the wrath of the cutter’s sharp knife at an early age and was the one leading girls to the same atrocity.
  • In most parts of the Tana River County, FGM thrives in secrecy.

We meet Isnino Tono at the home of Sheikh Abdullahi, an imam in Garsen Tana River County.

The 40-year-old is a reformed traditional circumciser. She now walks the talk in the fight against FGM.

Garsen has not been spared from the sweltering heat currently being experienced across the country.

Despite the high temperature, Ms Isnino opens up on her past, but with a lot of regret.

“Everyone involved in the exercise was highly praised and respected. This is what fascinated me the most. To earn the admiration of my peers, and husband, and be considered among those upholding our culture,” she says.

For decades, female genital mutilation (FGM) has been a cultural practice in many parts of Kenya. The brutal ritual, which involves the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, is often performed on girls between infancy and age 15, despite the health risks and long-term consequences.

When Ms Isnino was taken in as an assistant to a female circumciser, she was barely 18 years old, and was yet to have children. Many years prior, she had experienced the wrath of the cutter’s sharp knife and was the one leading girls to the same atrocity.

Inside the life of a female circumciser

Religious requirement

And it is easy to see why.

She is a member of the Munyoyaya, an Orma-speaking predominantly Muslim tribe in Tana River. She was brought up in a community that considered FGM a religious requirement and a key element of a girl’s marriageability.

“We all knew about the pain and the effects that stalked us even to our old age. Urinating, childbirth, and intimacy with our partners were dreadful, especially for those who’ve been infibulated. Yet we held dear.  From a young age, we had been made to believe that it was our fate as women,” she offers painting a vivid picture of events.

Having learned of the skill from other women, her work involved ensuring that the girls, often below 15 years of age, remain still to avoid cutting the unintended parts.

“I would hold them down, press their chest on the ground or I would be tasked to put my hand on their mouths, so they don’t let a scream,” she says, her tone subdued.

The night prior, the girls were taken to a nearby river at dawn, songs, dances, and praises filled the air. 

“We sang to celebrate their bravery and show admiration for the group. We also taunted the private parts that were to be cut.”

Abandoned women

By 2006, she explains, advocacy and campaigns against FGM were gaining ground and dozens of girls begged not to be cut,” she adds.

“Through the dances, we mocked and shamed them for what we perceived to be cowardice.”

Her face lights up as she narrates the experiences of the dances and songs; she moves her hands and her lean body forward and backward, as if one reminiscing of the abandoned women’s get-together. 

On the day of our interview, Ms Isnino receives information that some women who secretly wanted to cut a young girl have been arrested.  Such news make her heart leap with joy, she shares.

“In most parts of the Tana River County, it thrives in secrecy. Thankfully, there are many whistle-blowers.”

In 2011, the government outlawed FGM with anyone found culpable likely to face a minimum of three-year imprisonment and/or a fine of at least Sh200,000.

By the time the mother of four quit the retrogressive practice in 2008, tens of girls had gone through her hands. One of her three daughters is also cut.

“I started growing doubts about the practice partly because of the advocacy work against FGM. First, our girls were unable to keep up with their peers in terms of academic progress,” she says, adding that the healing process took a long period.

“I asked myself one question, if this is a matter of religion, how come some Muslim faithful don’t practice?” Ms Isnino says softly, her words slow and deliberate.

FGM benefits

There was also something else. The trauma and the pain that the girls experienced, coupled with her own nightmares. She began to doubt the supposed benefits of FGM.

“I started to feel guilty about what I was doing," she said. “I knew that I was hurting these girls, and I couldn't shake the feeling that it was wrong.”

In 2007, she attended a training session organised by Muslim clergy on the harmful effects of FGM where they delinked the vice from religion. The session opened her eyes to the reality of the practice, and gave her the courage to leave just stop.

“I realised that FGM was not a religious obligation and that uncut girls could also get married. Further, FGM does not reduce sexual desires in women,” she says.

"I felt so ashamed of what I had done and the harm I had caused. I knew that I had to make a change."

Since then, Ms Isnino has dedicated herself to raising awareness about the dangers of FGM and advocating for its eradication.

“We started moving from one village to another talking to the women. Ni hatari mama (it is dangerous ma’am),” she keeps repeating with a sense of regret.

Three decades

“I want to make sure that no other girl goes through what I went through and what I took other girls through," she says.

“I want them to know that they are perfect just the way they are and that they don't need to be cut to be accepted.”

Recent data from World Health Organisation (WHO) say more than 200 million girls and women alive today, have undergone FGM in 30 countries in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.

Former President Uhuru Kenyatta stated the aim of eradicating FGM by end of 2022. He said society must free girls from one of the worst forms of gender-based violence that is retrogressive and no longer has a place within our society, FGM.

A 202o analysis by Unicef says FGM prevalence among adolescent girls in Kenya has dropped from five in 10, to one in 10 over the last three decades. The study also found that girls from poor backgrounds in rural areas, with lower levels of education and identifying as Muslim, were most likely to have undergone FGM.

Ms Isnino knows that changing deeply entrenched cultural practices takes time and persistence, but she remains hopeful that change is possible.

"It's not easy to change people's minds, but we have to keep trying," she says.

"We have to keep talking about it, educating people, and raising awareness. We have to keep fighting until FGM is no longer practiced anywhere in the world,” she says as we part way, hoping that her resolve is replicated across the country, especially in the 22 FGM hotspot counties.

[email protected]