Though I miss home, I don’t yearn to go back

One of the girls taking refuge at Cana Girls Rescue Home in Nginyang’, Baringo County. Most girls here are victims of forced marriages, early marriages, defilement and forced labour.

Photo credit: Jared Nyataya | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Although the government has declared FGM illegal in 2011, the outlawed practice is still dominant among the Pokot.
  • Chemket, 17, fled her home in Tiaty West, to escape FGM and forced marriage, four years ago.
  • The practice, mandatory for every girl from the Pokot community, is considered a girl’s transition to womanhood.
  • Chemket and 10 other girls who fled FGM, are being hosted at Chemolingot Primary School.

As the world commemorated International Day of the Girl Child on Tuesday, thousands of their counterparts in Tiaty, Baringo County had nothing to celebrate. Retrogressive cultural practices including female genital mutilation (FGM) and high illiteracy levels, and other challenges, stared straight into their faces.

Although the government has declared FGM illegal in 2011, the outlawed practice is still dominant among the Pokot, Ilchamus and part of the Endorois communities in Baringo County.

We meet Chemket (not her real name) with her peers, sitting on stones under some barren shrubs, to shield them from the afternoon’s sweltering heat.

Despite the myriad of challenges they have faced, there is something striking about the 12 girls – nothing bothers them anymore. They feel safe in their new home - Chemolingot Primary School in Tiaty West, where they fled to escape from FGM and forced marriages.

Mealtime for girls hosted at Chemolingot Primary School. The girls have one meal a day - in the afternoon.

Photo credit: Jared Nyataya | Nation Media Group

When Nation.Africa tours the institution where the minors have taken refuge, we come face to face with the tribulations girls in the Pokot community face.

For Chemket, she fled her home, a remote far flung village in Tiaty West, more than 100kms away, four years ago.

According to the 17-year-old, her troubles started in 2015 when she was barely 11 years old. Coming from a community where female cut is a prerequisite rite of passage for every girl, she was to join dozens of her peers who had been rounded up in one homestead awaiting seclusion, an exercise that would take more than two months before they graduate into ‘womanhood’.

The practice is mandatory for every girl from the Pokot community. It is considered a girl’s transition to womanhood, and culminates in the exchange of hundreds of livestock, as part of dowry, after being forced into arranged marriages.

“Growing up in the far flung village is not easy owing to the challenges including food scarcity and malaria, among other problems. The predicaments worsen if you are a girl because you are viewed as a source of wealth, which in most cases, leads to marriage to older men,” says Chemket.

A girl  at Cana Girls Rescue Home. Chemket*, one of them, says owing to the challenges she faced in her village, she has vowed to complete her education and become a role model to thousands of girls who are undergoing the same challenges.

Photo credit: Jared Nyataya | Nation Media Group

“After the initiation ceremony, I was immediately forced to marry a middle-aged man as a second wife. He was so violent and a habitual drunkard,” adds the minor amid sobs.

She fled home severally, but her father, who had already received more than 60 cows and 10 goats as dowry, insisted she had to go back to her matrimonial home, where she belonged.

Her violent husband, she explains, also followed her to her father’s compound ‘breathing fire’. He was categorical that he had paid more than enough dowry for his ‘stubborn wife’ and ‘she must go back’, a threat he made clear by beating her mercilessly.

“I had no choice but to go back to the abusive husband. In 2017, I conceived. Despite my condition, he didn’t stop his usual battering and I had to go back home again, where I gave birth and as usual, I was forced to go back to him,” says Chemket.

When her baby was 10 months old, she went back to her parents’ home again and threatened to take poison if they forced her to return to her abusive husband.

“Knowing that my plea would fall on deaf ears, I resorted to flee to Chemolingot, the Sub-county headquarters where I had gotten wind of a primary school that admits girls like me. I left my baby with my mother and begun the more than 100-kilometres walk at night. The journey took me more than four days. I made stop overs at different villages,” she explains.

She sought admission at Chemolingot Primary School. The institution admits girls who have fled from archaic practices. Chemket joined Grade One in 2018; she is now in Grade Six.

Girls taking refuge at Chemolingot Primary School in Tiaty, Baringo County, captured when Nation.Africa visited the institution on October 08, 2022.

Photo credit: Jared Nyataya | Nation Media Group

Owing to the challenges she faced in her village, she has vowed to complete her education and become a role model to thousands of girls who are undergoing the same challenges in the pastoralist communities.

“I have never been to my village since then; not because I hate my people, but I vowed to bring a change in my community and reverse the trend where girls are viewed as a source of dowry. Let me be the sacrificial lamb. No other girl should undergo what I faced in my childhood. I want to be a book that any girl from the Pokot community would read and see hope,” she says.

Chemket and 10 other girls who fled FGM, are being hosted at the institution. They rely on well-wishers for their survival.

They tell Nation.Africa that they eat one meal a day, in the afternoon - from the school. The dormitory where they sleep is not fenced, thus not safe enough to protect them from the men who may come preying on them.

Five kilometres away is Cana Rescue Centre in Nginyang’, in the same Sub-county. This is a safe haven for hundreds of girls who have been rescued from archaic cultural practices.

With a community where women have no voice or position in the society, a retired Anglican cleric, Rev Canon Christopher Chochoi, has offered to help. He rescues girls who have fled forced marriages, and outcasts who have refused to submit to FGM and have been ostracized by their families.

Retired Anglican Church of Kenya cleric Canon Christopher Chochoi, who is the director of Cana Girls Rescue Home in Nginyang’, Baringo County, where 54 girls are taking refuge, speaks to Nation.Africa on October 08, 2022. 

Photo credit: Jared Nyataya | Nation Media Group

The centre, the only one of its kind in Baringo County, has hosed hundreds of girls who have been neglected, abused and some defiled. The girls are from as far as Samburu, Pokot, Turkana, Ilchamus and the Tugen communities.

Chepkura (not her real name) is among the 54 girls being hosted here. The 14-year-old narrates how she fled from home in the neighbouring Laikipia County, hundreds of kilometres away, after she was subjected to FGM and forced to marriage when she was only 11 years old.

During the Covid-19 pandemic when the Ministry of Education closed schools, Chepkura’s father saw it as an ideal time to subject her to FGM, claiming she was mature enough to be a wife.

Being a first born in a family of six, she says her father kept saying she was ripe for marriage.

“In August 2020, my fears of FGM were confirmed. Myself and six other girls from the village were rounded up and taken to seclusion in a bush away from home. We spent more than two months there, after facing the knife. It is a painful experience that I would not wish even on my worst enemy,” says Chepkura.

Some of the girls taking refuge at Chemolingot Primary School.  Rising cases of forced FGM and early marriages have been worsened by high illiteracy and poverty levels, where parents see girls as a source of more livestock through dowry.

Photo credit: Jared Nyataya | Nation Media Group

Few days after the initiation ceremony, she says some men came to her home at night, saying they had been sent to take her.

“Earlier that day, I overheard that my father had threatened that he would not cater for my education anymore now that I was ‘ripe’ for marriage. My mother, who was against the idea, claimed she suspected he had already received my dowry and I would be married off any time,” she explains.

“The suitors took me at night; we boarded motorcycles to a remote village in Tiaty East, dozens of kilometres away, to my matrimonial home. I fled a few days later, but my plans never worked. I was taken back,” Chepkura says.

A month later, after getting acquainted to the routes heading to Chemolingot, she traversed the thick bushes and luckily boarded a lorry headed to Loruk at the border of Tiaty and Baringo North constituencies.

“I had heard about a rescue centre in Nginyang’ and ended up at Nginyang’ Primary School.  The teachers agreed to host me and I was enrolled in the school. I was later taken to the rescue home,” says the minor.

She swears never to go back home for fear that she will be taken back to her ‘husband’.

“Though I miss home, I don’t yearn to go back there. I am pretty sure when they know my whereabouts, they will come for me,” she laments.

Rev Chochoi, the director of Cana Rescue Centre, started in 2006, says despite the government’s move to end FGM by end of this year, the practice is still prevalent in Tiaty.

 Canon Christopher Chochoi addresses the girls at the rescue school on October 08, 2022. 

Photo credit: Jared Nyataya | Nation Media Group

“I receive girls from the region, who flee from female cut and early marriages, into the centre every week; an indication that the vice is still rife in the Pokot community. The situation has been worsened by high illiteracy and poverty levels, where parents see girls as a source of more livestock,” says Rev Chochoi.

According to the priest, uncircumcised girls here are considered ‘unripe’ and outcasts, who cannot mingle with girls who have been cut.

The allure of getting more than 50 cows as bride price for a circumcised girl, pushes parents to engage in the practice.  Nobody will even negotiate bride price for ‘uncut’ girls because they are seen as ‘raw’ and incomplete women.

The Anglican priest says FGM has contributed to high illiteracy rates among women in the area, with more than 80 per cent of them uneducated.

He notes that the practice is rampant during December and August school holidays, with the culture deep-rooted in the remote villages including Ng’oron, Kolowa, Kakapul, Gulel, Atirir, Kongor, Nyakwala, Silale, Kositei, Akoret, Akwichatis, Toplen, Nasorot, Riong’o, Churo, Tangulbei, Paka and Natan.

Persuading locals to abandon this retrogressive practice is dangerous. The centre’s matriarch came face to face with the risks a month ago when furious, armed male relatives to one of the girls stormed the centre. They demanded to have her handed over to them as she was due for the cut, and marriage.

The Pokot view FGM as a cultural practice that every girl must undergo to be considered a woman.

Here, it is justified because there is a social consensus that if households do not perform it, they risk being excluded, criticized and stigmatized.

The region records high cases of mass FGM and early marriages during school holidays. Hundreds of girls aged between 10 and 16 years are always the victims.

Lilian Chepchumba, an anti-FGM crusader from Tiaty, says circumcisers know that the ritual is unlawful and have changed tact to conceal their crude ways from authorities.

Lilian Chepchumba, founder of Sauti ya Dada Foundation and a human rights defender in Baringo County inside a dormitory housing girls who are taking refuge at Chemolingot Primary School. 

Photo credit: Jared Nyataya | Nation Media Group

She explains that some parents now engage in cross-border FGM by carrying it out in neighbouring countries, to escape the wrath of the administrators.

“Some parents make arrangements for their girls to visit relatives in the neighbouring West Pokot and by the time they come back, they have already been cut,” she says.

Ms Chepchumba notes that the community is not ready to embrace girls who have escaped from the cut, and calls for access to justice for girls at risk and survivors.

Kenya targeted to end the female cut by 2022, but it is still prevalent with some communities believing it is important for social acceptance, and increases marriage prospects.

Dorothy Chebet, Elimu Kwanza Initiative Director, says men in remote villages within Tiaty Sub-county are trading their young daughters who are supposed to be in school, to old men for dowry.

Ms Chepchumba of Sauti ya Dada Foundation chats with girls at the rescue institution.

Photo credit: Jared Nyataya | Nation Media Group

The human rights activist calls for legal action against parents who subject young girls to FGM and forced marriages for their own gain.

She points at rising cases of gender-based violence in the region and she has called on the county assembly to pass the proposed sexual and gender-based violence Bill. It seeks to create localized policies and legal framework, which would mitigate against the vice.

“The Bill will provide legal framework for the protection of victims of gender based violence, create county sexual and gender technical working groups and gender recovery centres,” she says.