The bold fight against FGM; practice no longer 'fashionable'

Anti-Female Genital Mutilation Board CEO Bernadette Loloju during the launch of the Hooyo Haigoynin project at Best Western Meridian Hotel, Nairobi, on February 2, 2023. The project seeks to educate the Somali community in Eastleigh, Nairobi, about the negative impacts of FGM and other harmful cultural practices.

Photo credit: Lucy Wanjiru I Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Anti-FGM Board CEO says that as a young girl, she embraced female circumcision, despite the pain that came with it.
  • She says it was celebrated and fashionable, and nobody ever sensitised them to its negative effects

One evening in August 1988, Bernadette Loloju recalls seeing an elderly woman make her way to their home in Rombo village, Oloitoktok, Kajiado County. It was during the August school holidays and she was in Standard Eight.

The woman, a retired nurse, was well known in the area. Mothers hired her to perform female genital mutilation (FGM) on their daughters. She carried a small bag that Bernadette would later learn contained her tools of trade.

After a brief welcome when we meet her, Bernadette tells Nation.Africa how the woman carefully removed the items and placed them on a small mat. They included a pair of scissors, several syringes, a knife and a roll of cotton wool.

The cutter was later given a sufuria in which she put the syringes and added some water. She then placed it on fire to boil (sterilise) the items.

As the sound emanating from the boiling syringes rent the air, Bernadette, her sister and cousin were summoned to the house by their mother. They were to undergo an important rite that precedes the cut.

A mixture of milk and water was poured into a basin before some cow dung was added. The contents were properly mixed and applied on their heads before they were shaved clean, in turns.

“I knew the die had been cast and it was a matter of hours before we could face the knife. I was scared to death and I could not sleep that night,” Bernadette says.

At 5.30am the following day, they were woken up and marched to a hut next to the main house where the cut took place, she says.

“I was the first one to undergo the cut. One woman held my back and another one my legs. It was a very painful experience. I could hear the sound of the scissors as it cut through me. I had to be very brave. A girl was not supposed to blink or cry while she was being cut. She was expected to exhibit maximum courage.”

The healing process took three weeks. At first, she was happy to have undergone FGM because she was now a “full woman”, according to her community’s culture, Bernadette says.

“FGM was very fashionable at the time in the village. Every girl here had been cut. Everyone in my family, including my grandmother, mother and in-laws had all undergone the cut and I saw nothing wrong with it.”

Elderly women, mothers and aunties in her community always reminded young girls on the importance of FGM.
“The cut was done mostly during the December holidays and it was not done in secret. It was celebrated and fashionable. Nobody ever created awareness of its negative effects,” Bernadette tells Nation.Africa.

This, she reveals, made her and other girls embrace the cut. They were always required to take their elders' advice without hesitation.

Although many girls from circumcising communities were married off immediately after FGM, Bernadette says she was not cut in readiness for marriage. Her parents subjected her and other siblings to it because of community pressure. She says their extended family had FGM adherents who did not believe in education.

Alliance Girls

Most of her cousins, she reveals, were married off immediately after they were circumcised. Her view on FGM would, however, change after she joined Form One at Alliance Girls’ High School. Here, she met girls from different backgrounds, and realised many of them had not been cut, raising pertinent questions in her mind.

This realisation, she notes, made her resolve to explore this cultural practice, especially why some communities practised it and others did not.

She discovered that FGM was a human rights violation that was being committed on girls and women in the name of culture.

“This realisation ignited the anti-FGM activism spirit in me. I felt that strong urge to fight for innocent girls being subjected to the cut against their will,” she says.

Photo credit: Sydney Kithome I Nation Media Group

The anti-FGM champion reveals that women and girls who have undergone the cut look normal or okay, but live with its consequences for the rest of their lives.

She adds women are suffering out of a five-minute rite that ends up becoming the source of their lifelong suffering.

At the age of 19, Bernadette got pregnant and came to know the real effects of FGM when she went to hospital for delivery, she says.

“I remember the nurses asking me who had done that to me and I asked them what. When I pushed for the baby to come out, it tore my private parts and the doctors had to stitch me up. It took three weeks for me to heal.

“It was the most painful experience in my life,” she recounts.

In her gender activism role, Bernadette, who holds a Master’s in Global Community Development from Southern Adventist University, Tennessee, USA, has served in different capacities in the field of girls and women empowerment for more than 15 years.

Through her efforts, she has saved many girls from FGM and child marriage, efforts that always give her the drive to continue, she says.

And even though she cannot exactly say the number of girls she has saved from the cut, she puts the number at thousands of girls.

The anti-FGM campaigns have paid off, with her village being completely FGM-free. The circumcisers and elders have abandoned the vice for other income-generating activities.

As a result of her activism, she was appointed the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Anti-FGM Board in 2019. The state agency is primarily tasked with eliminating female circumcision in the country.

The board was established in December 2013, following the enactment of the Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act, 2011.

Among her strategies in the war on FGM in the country’s hotspot areas, Bernadette mentors survivors to speak up against the vice and, in turn, mentor other survivors.

The anti-FGM boss enumerates some of the major successes achieved by the government in the FGM fight.


She says the launch of the Eradication of FGM policy by former President Uhuru Kenyatta in 2019 is a major milestone for the board.

The policy seeks to accelerates the eradication of FGM by strengthening multi-sectorial interventions, partnership and community participation.

It also entails addressing emerging trends in FGM and strengthening research, data collection on the management on FGM.

Another key achievement by the organisation in recent years is the denouncement of FGM by Marakwet, Maasai, Borana and Samburu cultural elders.

The board has been in a charm offensive in hotspot counties to woo elders, who are the custodians of culture, to denounce FGM in their respective communities.

The most outstanding commitment came from Samburu elders, who, in 2021, signed a historic declaration to end FGM and child marriage in the community, dubbed the Kisima Declaration.

The elders, drawn from the six sacred mountains of Samburu, affirmed their resolve at a ceremony witnessed by Mr Kenyatta. They also lifted a “cultural curse” on girls who had not undergone the cut.

The curse has been one of the drivers of FGM among the Samburu, as girls opt to undergo the cut for social acceptance.
Targeting the cutters and turning them into anti-FGM crusaders has also been the state agency’s top priorities in the last few years.

Ending FGM will contribute to girls’ and women’s empowerment, and the realisation of Vision 2030 and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Bernadette notes.

“Women and girls should be allowed to remain the way God created them without forcing the removal of any part or organ. We will not rest until this outdated, outlawed cultural practice is completely eradicated in the country,” she says.

The Anti-FGM boss is happy with results in the recent Kenya Demographic and Health Survey report, terming them an indication that government interventions are bearing fruit.

Game changer

She notes the report shows that education is the game changer in the fight against FGM as girls are safer in schools.

“Education contributes highly to the reduction in FGM. The more our communities get educated, the more the girls become safer from the cut.

“An educated woman will make better decisions when it comes to protecting her daughters from such outdated cultural practices,” notes the activist, who holds another degree in community development from Daystar University.

In the past year, her agency has launched more robust initiatives to accelerate the fight against the harmful tradition.

They include campus dialogues dubbed #TubongeNaComrades and meant to create awareness among students of the harmful effects of FGM.

Again, the formation of an organisation, to be named National Survivors’ Network, for girls and women who have undergone FGM are at an advanced stage.

The network, she says, will act as a mentorship hub for the survivors. They will be rehabilitated and taught how to pick up the pieces and rebuild their lives.

Bernadette singles out lack of adequate resources as one of the major challenges facing the fight, saying more funding is needed to reach the unreached with information regarding the vice.

Kenya banned the practice in 2011, paving the way for the Female Genital Mutilation Act, 2011, which carries a minimum punishment of a three-year jail term and a Sh200,000 fine.

Bernadette believes that women hold the key to stopping this bad culture.

“If the mothers say they will no longer subject their girls to the cut and stop forcing their sons to only marry those who have undergone the cut, that will be the end of this issue,” she concludes.