The cultural bondages choking Kenyan women

Nastehe Abubakar, a victim of FGM during the interview with in Bula, Tana River County.                                      

Photo credit: Stephen Oduor | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • FGM and child marriage have been illegal in Kenya since 2001 when the Children’s Act became law, but women and girls continue to be victims.
  • In Nyanza and Western regions widow cleansing and inheritance as well as woman-to-woman marriages are common.
  • n Samburu County, under-age girls, are bound through beading.

Ever heard of Entito (Maasai) or egesane (Kisii)? Girls and women who have not undergone female genital mutilation (FGM) are called by these names in the open - at the river, in the market and any other social place.

With that identity, they feel inadequate and lacking a sense of belonging, says Emily Konchellah, an anti-FGM campaigner in Narok County. This pushes them to undergo the cut in order to fit in.

During an intergenerational forum on harmful cultural practices in Kilgoris, Kajiado County last July, the anti-FGM advocate said: “Men, please stand up for women and girls. FGM will end if you say no to demeaning those who have not been cut. Let your communities know that you are okay with marrying women who have not undergone FGM.”

The forum brought together men and women from Nakuru, Laikipia, Kisii, Nyamira, Narok, Kericho, Bomet and Kajiado counties. The attendants highlighted FGM as an underlying contributor to high prevalence of child marriages in Kenya.

Twenty one per cent of girls and women aged 15- 49 years have been subjected to FGM according to the 2014 Kenya Demographic and Health Survey. The prevalence, however, varies from the highest 98 per cent in North-eastern Kenya to one per cent in Western.

Girls who have undergone FGM leave the compound of the Omosari (the circumciser) in Kuria East in 2012. Forcing underage girls into marriage is a gross violation of human rights.

Further, the data shows 72 per cent of women living with the cut reside in three regions namely North-eastern, Rift Valley and Nyanza. The prevalence also differs depending on the ethnicity. For instance, less than one per cent of Luhya and Luo women report being cut in contrast to 94 per cent of the Somali origin. On the other hand, the survey shows a 23 per cent prevalence in child marriage.

FGM and child marriage have been illegal in Kenya since 2001 when the Children’s Act became law, but women and girls continue to be victims. Other laws such as the Sexual Offences Act, 2006, the Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act, 2011 and the Marriage Act, 2014, which sets the age of marriage at 18 years, also protect girls from these practices.

With President Uhuru Kenyatta’s commitment to fight gender-based violence and end FGM by 2022, multi-sectoral approaches have been employed to end these harmful cultural practices, especially mobilising local administrators to action.

Of Mr Kenyatta’s 12 anti-GBV commitments is for his government to adopt a GBV indicator in performance contracting framework as a tool of monitoring all the duty bearers on their progress in enforcing the respective legislations and guidelines. And so far, some administrators have been on the front-line in the fight against FGM and child marriage.

Rift Valley Regional Coordinator, George Natembeya, has been conspicuously vocal on this front, calling on communities to end these practices.  “Chiefs, be vigilant! If a girl gets pregnant in your area, I will presume that pregnancy is yours,” he said last year, warning mothers against subjecting their daughters to FGM before marrying them off.

Undergo FGM

In Samburu County, under-age girls, are bound through beading. Here, a moran uses beads to buy a girl yet to undergo FGM for the purpose of having sexual relations with her. Should she get pregnant, she is forced to undergo a traditional abortion. And the man is not in any way obliged to marry her.

In Nyanza and Western regions widow cleansing and inheritance as well as woman-to-woman marriages are common. Widows are cleansed and inherited by relatives predisposing them to abuse and HIV infection. Now, relatives are slowly moving away from the tradition and instead loaning the widows to friends who cleanse them for a pay.

On the other hand, fathers take advantage of the woman-to-woman marriages to dispose of their daughters who have given birth out-of-wedlock or force their teenagers out of school to sell them off to the women-often elderly barren women. The married women are merely “baby producers”.

They sleep with sexual partners of their choice, get pregnant and walk away. The ‘husband’ is supposed to support her to raise the children but due to their frailty, the ‘wife’ takes absolute responsibility for the children.

Working groups

Gender Chief Administrative Secretary Dr Linah Jebii Kilimo says the government is working towards uprooting these harmful practices through national and county gender sector working groups.  She cites the “fear of unknown” as an obstacle to eliminating the harmful cultural practices.

“There is some fear that if I don’t do this, something will happen. The fear of the unknown informed by myths is what has perpetrated the continuation of these harmful cultural practices,” she says.

In other countries across Africa, there is breast ironing common in Cameroon, Guinea-Bissau, Chad, Togo, Benin, Guinea-Conakry, Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya and Zimbabwe.  It involves repetitive pounding, pressing, ironing, rubbing, or massaging of a pubescent girl’s breasts using hard or heated objects to ‘stop’ or ‘delay’ the breasts from growing or developing.

Trokosi in Ghana, Togo and Benin is a traditional system where virgins, some as young as six years, are sent into Troxovi (shrines for gods) as slaves, to make amends for wrongs committed by a member of the virgin girl’s family.

Virginity test

Virginity test common in South Africa and Zimbabwe, is condoned in Zulu culture, with virginity certificates awarded at ceremonies. Tests are performed by elderly women, who inspect the genitals of girls for torn hymens.

In Zimbabwe, a virginity test is used to prove a girl’s purity and thus increase the lobola–the bride price. It is reported that church elders have also adopted the practice. If the bride is found not be a virgin, she must then find a virgin for her husband to marry in a polygamous union as compensation.

In Mauritania, women and girls are subjected to Leblouh, a practice of grooming women and girls by force-feeding. They are brutally force-fed a diet of up to 16,000 calories a day to prepare them for marriage.

The cut that maims - Tana River women disabled by FGM

But for the gang of women that held her down while she was being circumcised, Nastehe Abubakar would be walking without a limp.

At the age of five years, she had no voice although her spirit protested the cut. She pitied girls who proudly took it. Her mother was one of the women entrusted with holding victims down as they got circumcised.

On the day she was cut, she was prepared aside from the other victims scheduled for genital mutilation.

Her mother knew she always detested it, hence came up with a plan to ambush her against her pleasure principles.

“I was led to the bush first before my colleagues were taken there; I thought I was just going for a short tour when my mother led me into a hut. Suddenly, a group of women wrestled me to the ground and tore my clothes,” she recounts.

As she struggled to escape from their grip, some pulled her legs apart while the others held her arms down, her mother abandoned her in the hands of the women.

Her leg was dislocated in the struggle as they went ahead to have their way, the blade piercing sharply through her flesh, leaving her in excruciating pain.

After the cut, they did not bother to check whether she got other injuries but instead bound her legs together with a rope to the waist after sewing her wounds.

“For almost a month, I was bound to my waist and slept on my side; a stick tied to a string is what was made available for me to pull whenever I needed anything,” she says.

She could not stand to relieve herself lest she interfered with the operation, prompting a fresh procedure. She therefore attended to the call of nature where she slept then sprinkled herself with water.

After the days in exile, the traditional surgeon accompanied with other women, came to inspect the wounds. She had healed and was recommended for discharge. When she stood up, however, she felt a sharp pain on her left joint and fell down.

“My mother was summoned, she tried to help me up but I was unable to walk; they recommended that I be checked at the Coast General Hospital where I underwent a scan,” she narrates.

The scan showed that she had a bone fracture that required an expensive operation.

Unable to afford it, the family took her home where she had to learn how to walk using sticks, eventually managing to move without them.

Her posture and walking stature have, however, remained unstable. Her limp is an everyday reminder of how horrible the traditional practice is.

Abshiro Ahmed, a victim of FGM. The cut tampered with her sexual reproductive system. 

Photo credit: Stephen Oduor | Nation Media Group

Abshiro Ahmed, 27, on the other hand, will never be able to conceive. The cut tampered with her sexual reproductive system, leaving a very small path to allow for intercourse.

In marriage, intercourse was the worst nightmare as her husband could not penetrate.

“I could barely receive my periods, I would go for four months without seeing them and when they came, they were heavy clots,” she says.

Then one evening, her husband forced his way through and left her bleeding and in pain. She had to find a traditional surgeon to stitch her up, but this left her with another problem, fistula.

“I battled fistula for almost two years, it was at that point that my husband abandoned me and married another wife,” she says.

Ms Ahmed has since recovered and is currently undergoing counselling over her traumatic past. She is among the few ambassadors against FGM in Tana River County.

More than 20 women in the county suffer disabilities resulting from FGM.

“If you go to villages such as Ghafoor, you will see many of them being taken care of by their families since they can’t walk,” says Tana River chairman for People Living with Disabilities Said Baboya.

The untold darkness behind the ever beautiful Samburu beads

Naserian (not her real name) from Samburu West is one of the many girls who have undergone the cultural rite – beading.

Beading tradition, female genital mutilation and early marriages are intertwined in the Samburu community.

Beading is widespread in Samburu, exposing young girls to physical, mental and sexual violence. Most often, the opinion of the girl does not matter when the beading relationship is negotiated.

When catches up with Naserian, 19, she recounts how she was forced into having sex at the age of 13 because of this ancient Samburu custom, an act that stole her innocence and virginity at an early age.

Unsurprisingly, she also found herself pregnant at that tender age. She gave birth to an ‘unrecognised’ kid who was later eliminated from the society by elderly women in the villages.

“It hurts me to date. I could not resist because it is what culture dictates,” she explains.

Before she was given off as a bride, Naserian like many other girls of her age, had been ‘booked’ by a Samburu warrior (moran) through beading.

Beading is widespread in Samburu, exposing young girls to physical, mental and sexual violence. 

Photo credit: Pool | Nation Media Group

This tradition allows Samburu warriors to have a temporary marital relationship with a booked young girl from the same clan. The practice involves morans selecting girlfriends, for sex, by buying and giving them red beads.

In most cases, the girls’ opinions don’t matter, when the beading relationship is negotiated. The negotiation is held between the warrior and the mother and brothers of the chosen girl.

Since the moran and his beaded girl are from the same clan and the girl is uncircumcised, both marriage and pregnancy is considered unholy and illegal. In case of a pregnancy, the pregnancy is terminated by elderly women, through cruel abortion like the case of Naserian.

“We hailed from the same clan so we couldn’t be recognised as husband and wife. My baby was killed without even my knowledge,” Naserian tells

She continues: “If the beaded girl gives birth like was my case six years ago, the child has to be eliminated through herb poisoning because it is considered an outcast.”

Immediately the family approves their daughter to be beaded, a special manyatta is constructed for daughter and the warrior, where special beads are given to the girl as a commencement for a sexual relationship.

Once a girl puts on the beads, it signifies that the she is booked and no one else, apart from her suitor, can have an intimate relationship with her.

For years, the beauty of wearing beads in Samburu has contributed largely to the tourism sector in the region, especially during the infamous Maralal International Camel Derby. However, the untold darkness behind some of the beads has seen violation of rights of underage girls living in the vast Samburu communities.

Girl child beading in the semi-nomadic region is a silent practice that has gone on for decades.

Samburu County Director for Gender Culture and Social Services Nasieku Letipila, says the retrogressive practice has denied girls access to education, leading to a high level of illiteracy among girls and women in Samburu.

Ms Nasieku says the practice is carried out in far flung villages away from the glare of security authorities. The county official adds that there are also high risks of contracting sexually transmitted infections including HIV/Aids as some morans often bead multiple girls.

“Once they (girls) are beaded, they are exposed to risks that they cannot get out of. They are also subjected to psychological stress at early stages of their lives,” she adds.

Ms Nasiaku says beading is a form of defilement since underage girls are compromised, noting that the practice limits school going girls from achieving their lifetime goals.

Girls subjected to beading are often exposed to multiple violations of rights that include early marriages and unwanted pregnancies, according to Samburu Girls Foundation (SGF) Executive Director Josephine Kulea. SGF is dedicated to rescuing Samburu girls from child-marriage, beading, and FGM.

“It is an outdated culture, which exposes girls to life-threatening early pregnancies and abortions. It is one of the vices that we are strongly campaigning against because it also exposes young girls to physical, mental and sexual violence,” Dr Kulea tells

The campaigner says most school going girls were beaded last year during the stay at home period, limiting their chances of resuming studies.

Dr Kulea is optimistic that cultural practices including beading and FGM in the region will come to an end, pointing out the infamous Kisima anti-FGM Declarations that was officiated by President Uhuru Kenyatta as a game changer “because elders vowed to end the practice.”

‘Golo kodhi’ sex ritual denying Luo women opportunity to farm

Esther Adhiambo Obudho, a widow from Homa Bay County, is celebrating a bumper harvest, having got 10 sacks of maize and a similar number for beans.

This is a milestone she does not take for granted, knowing too well the challenges she has faced since 2015 when her husband Harrison Oketch died.

Ms Obudho at the time depended on her half acre farm to feed her children. Unfortunately, the Luo culture golo kodhi denied her the only source of income.

She blames her slow growth in farming to the cultural practice that is a bottleneck to those who peg their income on serious farming.

Golo kodhi, loosely translated as ‘removing seeds’, is a mandatory ritual preceding preparation of land where a husband and a wife must have sex on the eve of planting as way of ‘planting a seed’ to ward off any bad luck that may hinder one from not getting a bumper harvest.

“In Luo tradition, a woman irrespective of where she is, must have sex with the husband before proceeding to plant the following day. It doesn’t matter whether you are ready for it; it gets worse when you are in a polygamous marriage,” says Ms Obudho.

In Luo tradition, a woman must have sex with her husband before proceeding to plant the following day. 

Photo credit: Pool | Nation Media Group

She narrates how she has been staying with her parents-in-law at Rachuonyo, Pala area where her husband happens to be the fourth born in a family of six sons.

In this case, she is not allowed to sow seeds in her half an acre before her mother-in-law and the three co-wives (her late husband’s sisters-in-law) - this is according to the hierarchy, irrespective of the planting season, which does not wait for farmers.

“I was forced to always wait for my mother-in-law to carry out the golo kodhi ritual, wait for my co-wives whether they were at home or not. Once they perform the ritual, I am given the go-ahead to plant. During this whole time, the rainy season may pass before I sow any seeds - a big loss for me,” she says.

It gets worse during harvesting. Again, another ritual called doyo (weeding) and duoko cham (harvesting) which follows the same procedure and she has to wait for her turn.

Sometimes one of the co-wives is not in good terms with her husband and you have to wait until they sort their differences and perform the ritual, before you proceed weed or harvest.

Ms Obudho says sometimes her opportunity comes when her mother-in-law is either not ready to harvest hers or her co-wives are weeding.

She adds: “It gets worse when my crops are ripe, and just because other lazy people do not want to remove theirs, I am forced to leave my crops on the farm; they get destroyed just because I cannot jump the queue,” she says.

So controlled is the agricultural space for women in the Luo community that even the kind of seed you plant is dictated by the type the mother-in-law chooses to plant in her farm.

“There are times I am not allowed to plant sorghum until my mother does. When she decides on going for the wrong crop irrespective of the suitable weather and soil, we are forced to follow suit for the sake of culture,” laments the 41-year-old widow.

When she could not stand the frustrations anymore, she sold the four oxen that were used to till all the farms in the homestead. This put her in trouble and when she tried using a hired tractor to plough her land, her brothers-in-law chased the contracted driver. She then decided to go live at a nearby centre.

She would afterwards lease farming land from other people. That is how she got her independence and has never depended on her in-laws again.

Ms Obudho currently works with a community-based organisation in Homa Bay dubbed Stepping Stone. Its membership is mostly women living along the lake investing in aquaculture and economic justice.

“It is usually said if you can’t beat them, join them. My way is to avoid conflict and find alternative ways of farming including leased land, because it provides an opportunity to adhere to the agri-value chain, especially in these areas that still depend heavily on rain-fed agriculture,” says Ms Obudho.

Easter Oketch, Executive Director and Programs Coordinator at Kenya Female Advisory Organisation blames some cultural practices for the low uptake of farming by women.

“Some parcels of land are lying fallow, yet when you follow closely you find that some cultural practice is impeding the ability for women to engage in agriculture. This must stop for us to empower our women,” says Ms Oketch.

Luo elder Jaduong Odungi Randa, however, says the culture was important to guide the community well. He denies that it affects farming.

“These cultural practices should not be condemned because they make us more organised than those who colonised us,” says Mzee Randa.

When widows must be inherited to ‘open’ ways for their children

When Gaudencia Obura, 70, got married to her husband James Obura 50 years ago, her hope was that they would live, sire and raise their children together.

Her dream was, however, short-lived following the sudden death of her husband a few months into their arranged marriage. Prior to her husband’s death, the two had just learnt that they were expecting their first child and had been looking forward to becoming parents.

“I gave birth to my first born son three months after my husband’s death. At the time, however, I was faced with many challenges and could not raise our son by myself,” she says.

Months after her husband’s death, local elders invited to a meeting. They brought up the issue of wife inheritance.

“Their suggestion was that I get married to my late husband’s younger brother, Elisha Keya, who was still single at the time,” she tells The Voice.

Apart from Mr Keya, an elderly man had also shown interest in her. She, however, turned his offer down and agreed to marry her late husband’s brother.

She adds that the elders had informed her earlier that getting married to her husband’s brother was the only way to ensure continuity of the family lineage.

“Once married, he was very supportive, he looked after my late husband’s first son, we also sired six more children together,” she narrates.

Mr Keya died 40 years after their marriage, having stayed loyal and never getting another wife.

“He offered both financial and emotional support, unlike some of my friends who would complain of not receiving any kind of support from their inheritors,” she offers.

Ms Obura is among the few lucky women who were inherited by men who had their interest at heart.

This was not the case for Angelina Ooko who was also inherited by her brother-in-law a after her husband’s death.

Her late husband left behind eight children, six boys and two girls who needed a father figure.

For Ms Ooko, getting married a second time was not an option: “I had to get married to a man to look after my children and to ‘open’ ways for my children who would have found it hard getting married in future had I chosen to stay single.”

She narrates that after her husband’s burial, the elders suggested she gets married to her brother-in-law, a son to her mother-in-law’s sister.

“My mother-in-law and her sister got married to the same man both having children of their own,” she narrates. She laments that their marriage was troubled and given a chance, she would not have gone with the elders’ proposal.

“He was never responsible, he always came home drunk, empty-handed and whenever my children and I were going through challenges, he would disappear only to reappear when all was sorted out,” she adds.

According to her, getting inherited made her lose freedom while she also took care of the entire family all by herself.

“I took up the responsibility of looking after my ‘husband’ and my children without any support or shared roles,” she says

Mzee Odungi Randa, who has served as a Luo elder, says it was important for a young woman to be inherited to ensure continuity of the family lineage.

The practice, however, is no longer common in the community as most women prefer staying single or remarrying in different families.

According to Mr Randa, every young woman who was married according to the Luo customary marriage had to go through wife inheritance to sire children for the deceased husband.

He adds that it was important to ensure the woman does not elope with a man whose background is unknown or end up becoming a prostitute.

“In the case where a lady is old, the man would be required to hang a piece of cloth or his coat in the house to symbolise his presence, this was important as he would take the position of the man of the family whenever need be,” says Mr Randa.

He adds that the woman could only be inherited by a relative younger than her late husband; she was, however, required to continue using her late husband’s name and not that of her inheritor.

The man in this case, was required to look after the ‘wife’ and her children, a role he says most men failed to carry out.

How ‘nyumba mboke’ tradition is shattering Kuria girls’ dreams

Eunice Kerambo sits outside a rented house that was once her home in Mugimui village in Kuria West Sub-county along the Kenya-Tanzania border.

The house has since been let out after the death of an elderly woman who had married her when she was 12 years old.

Ms Kerambo, now in her early 20s and a mother of two, says she was lured into marrying a 76-year-old woman through Nyumba Mboke, a popular custom among the Kuria community where women who cannot sire their own children marry young girls to secure their lineage.

“My parents were so poor that they could not sustain my education so, I dropped out of school in Class Seven and they married me off,” she tells

Initially, a young Ms Kerambo was hesitant to get married to Esther Boke but her parents convinced her that she would later inherit the woman’s property.

“I agreed to be her wife and marriage rites were arranged. She even paid eight head of cattle as my dowry,” she says.

The cattle were later used to pay dowry for her two elder brothers. For more than eight years, life was okay. She had two children with different men.

“She had no problem with me sleeping around with other men. At times she directed me to the man she wanted for me; her main concern was children.”

Things, however, changed when the elderly woman died in 2019. The woman’s husband threw Ms Kerambo out from the parcel of land that ought to have been her inheritance.

Once a Kuria girl is circumcised and happens to get pregnant, they easily get married through the Nyumba Mboke system.

Photo credit: Pool | Nation Media Group

“He would come home drunk and beat us up, sometimes throwing us out to spend the night in the cold. He did not want my children,” she says.

Despite the frustrations, she cannot return to her parents or escape from the home since her full dowry was paid.

“I’m struggling to make ends meet, her husband has sold the parcel of land, which was left in my custody. Had no dowry been deposited to my parents, I could have left this relationship,” she narrates.

She warns young girls not to be lured into the Nyumba Mboke culture that has shattered her dreams.

“No girl should join this path. It will not only waste their time and completely destroy their future, but will also leave them dejected,” she says.

Adjacent to Ms Kerambo’s home is a 62-year-old mama Plister Auma, who has married a young girl under the Nyumba Mboke system.

Unable to sire her own children after getting married in 1982, Ms Auma sought advice from her husband who introduced her to the culture.

“I am a Luo but since I’m married among the Kuria and do not have children, I got this young woman for a ‘wife’. My husband has since died and I’m now the head of this family,” she says.

“I desperately needed a child for my posterity, it is the culture here in Kuria and I had to toe to their traditions.”

Ms Auma says she met the 13-year-old Rhoda Ghati when she visited her sister in Tanzania.

“Neighbours helped me raise the dowry, which I paid after she accepted to get married to me. My husband was sickly and could not raise the four cattle needed.”

Ms Auma says she has no problem with her ‘spouse’ moving out with men.

“She has to look for men who can sire children with her. I don’t choose a man for her,” she says jokingly.

The elderly woman now boasts of having five children.

“Despite the reprisals and name callings, I’m proud there is someone who will inherit my property when I die,” she says.

So entrenched is this practice that gender activists are now coming up with sensitisation programs to help the girls.

Valerian Mgani, a program officer at Association for Termination of FGM and SGBV, a Tanzanian-based NGO that fights gender-based violence, says they have teamed up with a Kenyan community-based organisation to root out the vice.

“Every year, we get more than 30 girls who have been married into the Nyumba Mboke system. The practice is so secretive and in most cases we get reports when it is already late,” she says.

Apart from rescue operations, the activists ensure the affected girls are taken back to school.

Once a girl is circumcised and happens to get pregnant, they easily get married through the system and this mostly occurs across the border.

By Moraa Obiria, Stephen Oduor, Geoffrey Ondieki, Rushdie Oudia, Angeline Ochieng’, Ian Byron