That thing is painful: Survivor on how she was tricked into FGM

Anti-FGM Board CEO Bernadette Loloju at her office. She has pledged to sensitise communities that still practice FGM on its dangers.

Photo credit: Steve Otieno | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • At the age of 12, Sarah Bhoke was tricked by her aunt and grandmother and forced to undergo the cut.
  • Previously a top student in her class, her grades took a nosedive and she performed poorly in KCPE exams. 
  • Her father was disappointed and decided to not pay her school fees. 
  • Merida Omaye also underwent the cut  in 1974, “when every woman in my community was being cut and that was normal in our culture”  and is currently one of the strongest anti-FGM campaigners in Migori.

Sarah Bhoke dreamt of becoming a medical doctor. The dream was, however, short-lived. Like many other young women, her most trusted people tricked her into Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). 

While living in Kiomakebe village, Migori County in 2006, her aunt and grandmother duped her to undergo the cut. She was only 12.

Ms Bhoke narrates her ordeal, which was covertly orchestrated without her father’s knowledge. He was opposed to FGM. 

“It was very painful. I wanted to scream but I was warned not to cry, lest I be left there and bleed to death.  There were 15 girls. My aunt and grandmother had asked me to join them and witness how the ceremony is conducted. They lied to me,” Ms Bhoke says. 

She recalls how the two kept pestering her about being cut as soon as she turned 10 years. As a young girl, she never thought much about it. The only thing she knew was that circumcised girls would immediately be referred to as women, and would be married off shortly after. For that reason, she abhorred the cut. She wanted to study, and eventually join the medical profession.

Unfortunately, the two people she trusted with her life duped her. They made her believe it was her cousin who would get the cut in the December 2006 ceremony held at Sirare, Migori County. To pacify and rid her of her fears, the aunt invited her to visit that December, telling her she was needed to support her cousin, aged 13, who was to undergo the cultural rite soon.

And when the time came, she innocently followed her cousin and the two adults to the remote village of Kiomakebe. Shockingly on getting there, four women grabbed her and forcefully cut her genitals.  

It is now 15 years since the ordeal but she has never forgotten nor forgiven her aunt and grandmother.

Ms Bhoke, previously a top student in her class, became withdrawn, avoided her classmates and her grades took a nosedive. She scored 230 marks out of 500 marks in her KCPE exams.

Merida Omaye, also known as Mama Bull addressing community members on the dangers of FGM in Kuria West. 

Photo credit: Pool | Nation Media Group

Her father was disappointed and decided to not pay her school fees.

“Had I not been forced to do what I did not want, I would have continued with my studies and made my parents proud,” the mother three says.

After a lot of convincing from relatives, her father paid her school fees and she joined Boke Haraka Secondary School, scoring a D+ in 2011. She was, unfortunately, married off immediately, at 17.

“Father gave up on me. He thought I was wasting his money yet I had four junior brothers who also needed school fees. My husband was brought to me, I did not know him prior. I felt so angry at that time. I blame my grandmother and aunt for their role in my life’s progress,” Ms Bhoke says.

Her experience is common in Kuria West, Migori County where FGM prevalence rate stands at 30 per cent. Here, adults employ tricks to force young girls to undergo FGM against their wish.

Merida Omaye, famously known as Mama Bull, also underwent the cut back in 1974, “when every woman in my community was being cut and that was normal in our culture” she explains. She is currently one of the strongest anti-FGM campaigners in Migori.

She was only 17 when she underwent the cut. She had never liked the idea of FGM but at that time, the ‘surgeons’, accompanied by elders, would walk door to door asking whether the family had plans of cutting their girls and when they would do it. She tried escaping by hiding in a bush but was forcefully hauled out and the cut forced on her.

Bled profusely

“I can talk about FGM with authority because I survived the painful operation. I had never wanted it. I tried hiding from those old women who did the operation but they got me eventually. I bled profusely. I was never taken to hospital. I thought I would die,” she says.

She too, was married off as soon as she healed from the cut and her hope of ever becoming a nurse one day, vanished.

That may have been over four decades ago, but the practice is ongoing, conducted secretly in the wee hours of the morning and with stricter measures, to conceal any tracks that may expose their clandestine unlawful act.

“The entire Kuria area was a scary place for small girls to live. Even those as young as nine were cut. They would be ferried to the remotest parts of Kuria, towards the Tanzanian border and be ‘operated’ and come back weeks later,” Ms Omaye says.

Over the past 30 years, the 64-year-old has rescued thousands of girls from the hands of people so embedded in the retrogressive culture and believe one cannot be a full woman without being circumcised.

She says the greatest challenge lies in the fact that eight out of the 12 Kuria clans are in Tanzania, and as such, Kenyan-Kurias must abide by the decisions of the majority. These decisions, include how, where and when to conduct the FGM annually, both in Kenya and Tanzania. This has seen many families ferry their daughters to Tanzania for the cut, no matter the consequences.

Denied access

The recently adopted Children’s Bill 2021, says no child should be denied access to basic education and should be protected from any act that might deprive them of normal social interaction with others.

The Bill also outlaws the employment, use, persuasion, inducement, enticement or coercion of a child to engage in or assist any other person in any sexually explicit conduct or simulation of such conduct.

All these provisions are, however, violated when a child is forcefully cut and married off shortly after and exposed to all forms of physical abuse, sexual and gender-based violence and denied their right to basic education.

Sadly, FGM continues to happen at a time when the government has enhanced efforts to end it. Among the most notable acts was a presidential declaration in 2019 to end FGM by 2022.

Though traditional leaders from more than 20 communities with high rates of FGM signed the declaration to end the practice in November 2019, nothing much has changed.

Data from Unicef shows that at least four million girls and women have undergone the cut. Overall, 21 per cent of girls and women aged between 15 and 49 have been circumcised. The prevalence of the outlawed practice varies from region to region with North Eastern leading the pack at 98 per cent of its girls and women aged between 15 and 49 having been cut.

Anti-FGM Board

At least 30 per cent of girls and women in Nyanza, especially in Kisii and Migori have undergone the cut. Less than one per cent of their counterparts in Western region, including Vihiga, Bungoma, Busia and Kakamega counties have been cut. At least three per cent of Kenyan girls under the age of 15 have undergone the cut.

Bernadette Loloju, the chief executive officer of the Anti-FGM Board acknowledges that the fight against FGM is not as easy as many would think. Currently, the board has heightened its operations to sensitise the need of abandoning FGM in the communities that practice it.

“We have mapped out 22 counties where FGM is prevalent and what we are doing is telling these people that we understand FGM is part of their culture, however, it is not in the best interest of their children to have them undergo the cut,” Ms Loloju says.

She also reveals that she is an FGM survivor though not ashamed about that because it was deeply rooted in her culture when she was a young girl. However, with the passing of time, the practice has proven to be of no benefit for the girl child. The retrogressive and harmful cultural practice has for many years denied girls a chance to exploit their full potential and is no longer tenable or fashionable.

“I can assure you that at least 90 per cent of women over 40 years from the Somali, Embu, Meru, Maasai, Pokot, Kuria and Marakwet communities underwent the cut. Back then, women solely depended on men for their livelihood. This is not the case anymore.

“Women now earn a living. Even with medical reasons aside, we are now telling women that they should aspire to be the icons in their communities, not people looking up to men for every single thing they want,” she says.

Hotspot counties practicing FGM in the country include Garissa, Mandera, Embu, Pokot,  Elgeyo Marakwet, Wajir, Isiolo, Tana River, Marsabit, Narok, Kisii, Migori, Meru Taita Taveta, Bomet, Kajiado and the Mt Elgon region, the Anti-FGM board boss says.

Cross-border challenge

The Anti-FGM board boss says ministers from Tanzania, Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia will be signing an action plan this month to deal with the cross-border challenge that frustrates efforts to curb the vice. This will also see the launch of a cross-border research for the five countries and help the States come up with policies and programs to firmly deal with FGM.

Currently, the awareness campaigns run by the board are targeting the men and asking them to protect women in their communities. The board has partnered with community-based organisations formed by men who are campaigning against FGM.

 Vincent Mwita, co-founder of Men End FGM Empowerment group in Kuria. He has been on the forefront asking men to join the fight to end FGM in the region.

Photo credit: Steve Otieno | Nation Media Group

Vincent Mwita is one of such men. He is a co-founder of the “Men End FGM Campaign based in Kuria West that began in 2019. He was inspired by his father’s resolve to resist pressure from cultural leaders and extended family members and stayed put in protecting his elder sister from undergoing the cut. Though his father passed on two years ago, Mr Mwita says he cannot forget the lessons he picked from him.

“I felt that men have a role in our community to help stop FGM. We make the men here see from our point of view that FGM is a violation to the rights of girls. Though girls are cut by women, they are cut for men for them to be accepted. If we (men) say no, then this matter will fizzle out quite fast!” he says. 

The Network for Adolescent and Youth of Africa (Naya), a civil society organisation based in Kajiado, Migori, Siaya and Homa Bay, has also led in the fight against FGM.

Ricky Ndege, a facilitator at Naya says they are against FGM as it is a major contributor to teenage pregnancies, sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) and child marriages. This, he explains, is because very young girls are married off to elderly men as soon as they are cut.

He observes that the lack of an operational rescue shelter in Kuria, (the porous border that allows SGBV and FGM perpetrators to flee to neighbouring countries), under-reporting of SGBV and the existence of community courts (Kangaroo courts) that block the road to justice for survivors, as the major challenges they face in their fight against the cut. However, they plan to engage the youth and train them to become anti-FGM agents in their communities.

Social norms

“When harmful social norms are broken down, young people are liberated to increase their voice and agency in the public arena. Therefore, we train societal actors so they have the knowledge and skills to act and play an important role in raising awareness and influencing debates,” he says.

Though the challenges continue to hit their efforts against FGM, Ms Loloju is confident that the practice will end when every single person involved adopts a paradigm shift and reinforces the belief that a woman is enough just as she is, without being cut.

“The presidential declaration to end FGM in 2022 is a very good strategy that gave us impetus, we have work a lot to do, but we will get there. We will go the engagement route. Use of force is very bad; it has caused aggression and rebellion. FGM is not in the interest of any single girl,” she says.

For Ms Bhoke, FGM is an enemy that has robbed off many girls like her, the opportunity to be what they ever truly desired to be and no one should have to experience what she underwent.

“That thing (FGM) is very painful. Very disgraceful, especially when you are forced to do it in the presence of many people. No one in her right mind should champion this cut. It will only frustrate you like it did to me," she concludes.