Men a let down in anti-FGM war, Domtila Chesang’
What you need to know:
- Anti-FGM advocate Domtila Chesang’ is disturbed by the effects of FGM on the community's education.
- She says men, especially young ones, are the ones fuelling the outlawed practice.
- More often than not, the morans don't marry uncut girls.
Domtila Chesang’ preaches the gospel of the fight against female genital mutilation (FGM) with a zeal of an evangelist. She has been a fighter, activist and advocate for the better part of her life, a thing she says brings her ‘both joy and sadness.
In 2017, thanks to her anti-FGM activism, she received the now defunct Queen’s Young Leader Award, at Buckingham palace in England. In 2020, she was honoured with the Head of State Commendation by President Úhuru Kenyatta.
"Sometimes I go to bed feeling very happy because of the many girls and women I have helped. Yet, other times I sleep feeling so low because of the many I can't help. The work is too much," she says.
Ms Chesang’ says she does not regret doing her work as a human rights defender and a crusader against FGM. She quickly points out that she and her partners have achieved a lot that she ‘can't exhaust’.
In 2010, she founded a community-based human rights organisation, I-rep Foundation, to bolster her efforts in the fight against FGM and gender-based violence in West Pokot, her home county.
She equates FGM to gender-based violence, which “no woman should go through”.
“The Pokot practice type three of the FGM- the worst form even though all the classes are bad and unacceptable,” she says.
The community holds two FGM ceremonies, she observes. The first one is done in public; to paint the practice as good and one that every girl should desire to take part in.
"They parade the girls in a cowshed and cut a slight part of the clitoris. All this while, the members of the public present engage in song and dance. After the cut, the girls even dance before the crowd. So it's framed to excite the girls and the public," she says.
After the ceremony, however, the girls are taken to the bush, away from the public. Here, Chesang’ says, only old women are allowed in.
“I remember when I was a young girl and out of curiosity, I sneaked into the bush and watched what happened, unnoticed. Those people mutilate the girls' organs almost completely. The girls scream and cry in pain but the women cover up by singing and dancing loudly, to absorb the Mayday cries," she says.
It is after witnessing this incident that she swore never to undergo the rite. She ran away from home to go stay with her sister. She later persuaded her mother to take her to a boarding school, which she says was her 'safe house'.
“My mother was easy to convince because she was a Christian, and the Bible does not advocate for female circumcision. I also noticed that boys were being circumcised in hospital, and I told her that if I had to be circumcised, then it had to be done in a hospital,” she says.
To her joy, her mother chose not to let her go through the process. She says her mother hated the practice so much that she got livid and almost banished one of her daughters who sneaked from home to go through the ceremony with other village girls.
Ms Chesang’, together with the I-rep partners, have joined hands with local schools and colleges to provide a sanctuary for the girls and women running away from the cut.
“Building our own safe houses is expensive and we do not have the resources. However, in these learning institutions, the girls benefit even more than they would in safe houses. Schools give them a chance to get an education. The women in the technical training institutions also acquire new skills,” she says.
The activist is a trained high school teacher, even though she does not practice. She chose to do advocacy and 'shade light in the Pokot community'.
She says their efforts are bearing fruit. That notwithstanding, she is disturbed by the effects of the practice on the community's education.
"In the entire West Pokot, we only have one professor. This thing (FGM) has crippled our growth. Almost all the girls who are cut don't go past primary school. They get married soon after," she says.
She notes that the men, especially young ones, are the ones fuelling the outlawed practice.
“It is easy to deal with older people. They have no problem, after all, they will no longer gain from the practice. But the young men, the morans, are difficult to convince. They are rebellious and rigid,” she observes.
More often than not, the morans, Ms Chesang’ says, don't marry uncut girls. That drives many girls to go for the cut, for marriage's sake.
“They sometimes marry uncut girls and later in marriage, after they have even had children, ask them to choose between the cut and divorce. Sadly, some women choose marriage over their rights, and in such cases, we can hardly do anything," she says.
She remembers a case in 2020, when a married woman, due to pressure from her husband, went for the cut. She was arrested and arraigned in court for going against the law. Ms Chesang’, however says some women stand firm and forego their marriages.
“Such are the ones we take to technical training institutions for protection and to learn skills that they can use to earn a living.”
Even though FGM is a crime in Kenya, Ms Chesang’ says the country is not doing enough to stem it.
"FGM is only criminal on paper. There are few pragmatic efforts to ensure the practice is stemmed from the community. We use the wrong approach by holding meetings and conferences in towns and cities, and do nothing in the remote parts where the vice is almost normal," she says.
She says poor infrastructure in rural areas is another reason why the practice is common.
"There is a village in West Pokot where no vehicle or even a motorbike can access. I know there are many such remote villages in Kenya. How can we reach these people? How can we talk to them? How can we rescue those girls and women, and empower them?" she poses.