When art speaks out louder against GBV; a survivor's story

FGM survivor Sarah Sori Abdub displays her artwork at the Isiolo Youth Innovation Centre on March 8, 2023. She uses her work to fight gender-based violence.

Photo credit: Waweru Wairimu I Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Sarah Sori Abdub advises survivors of gender-based violence to pursue their dreams, no matter the challenges.
  • Sarah was subjected to FGM while living with her grandmother, who started raising her up when she was only two months old.

Sarah Sori Abdub was in Class Eight when she noticed something strange on her body.

Then at a school in Laisamis, Marsabit County, in the company of other girls, she discovered that she had undergone female genital mutilation (FGM).

“I was 13 and had just returned from a school in Embu, where I was transferred to while in Class Four. Girls at the school kept bragging how they had undergone the cut. I was devastated on realising that I, too, was a victim,” she recalls.

The World Health Organization describes FGM as the partial or total removal of female external genitalia or injury to the genital for non-medical reasons.

The procedure can cause bleeding, infections, complications at childbirth and increased risk of newborn deaths.

Communities that practise FGM consider it a way to prepare girls for adulthood and marriage, with those not mutilated facing rejection and seen as outcasts.

Sarah was subjected to the outlawed practice while living with her grandmother, who started raising her up when she was only two months old. Her mother took her there.

Frustrated for having undergone FGM while at the hands of a close relative who should have nurtured and protected her from any harm, the girl, now aged 24, started living in isolation out of denial.

“I demanded answers at one time on learning the risks I had been exposed to but was told to be grateful that I was getting the basic needs,” she says.

“My grandmother told me that for one to be accepted socially, the ‘foreign stuff’ had to be removed.”


Like other pastoralist women who have no authority to question anything or express their feelings about an issue, Sarah, too, chose to stay mum so as not to be seen as disrespecting her mother and grandmother.

She recalls how, while at Moi Forces Girls School in Nakuru County, she used to skip lessons and spend hours crying at the playfield to relieve herself of the emotional baggage.

“I believed then that when one cried uncontrollably, God would hear and answer their prayers,” Sarah told Nation.Africa during a recent interview.

She got some relief after sharing the ordeal with one of her teachers. And while at the school, she was able to nurture her drawing skills, which she discovered while in Class Six, by taking the arts and design subject.

Having been detached from her parents at childhood, Sarah had one time while in Class Six drawn a picture of a young girl with tears falling down her cheeks.

It is while pursuing a bachelor’s degree in health records and information management at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology that psychological trauma had a heavy toll on her.

She had developed interest in reading novels to beat stigma but was forced to sell them to buy food after sleeping on an empty stomach for several days.

Sarah developed seizures during one of the holidays and was rushed to hospital late in the night, when doctors discovered that she was almost sinking into depression.

“I lost five kilogrammes at the time. I could not eat and survived on fluids for two weeks. I was advised to stop stressing myself up, but could that have been easy?” she poses.

“My aunt encouraged me to stay positive because I could not change the things that had made me become bitter with life.”

Unknown to her, art would save her from depression.

With increasing idleness due to few lectures on campus, Sarah had to quickly devise ways of staying engaged for proper mental health. Art offered her a lifeline.

She finally got a way to express her thoughts, emotions and dark reality of abuse through her artwork, granting her some peace of mind.

“I was able to explore my creativity and express emotions where words would not suffice, which helped me beat the stigma.”

The FGM survivor could also express how she felt towards her mother, something she would not have dared verbally.

“I did a picture of our family roses in a vase where one of them was dark to represent my mother and how bad I felt about the experience I had as a young innocent girl,” Sarah says, adding that the artwork communicated to her mother.

She felt she might not have been subjected to FGM if her mother was available but has over time changed her perception of her mother, whom she appreciates for working hard to provide for her and her two siblings and supporting their education.

At the beginning, her artworks were mere decorations in her rented house on campus. She later went commercial.

“I started selling some of my unique works to students and lecturers while in my second year, later trying out the outside market.”

She was at some point contracted by an entrepreneur to be drawing unique surreal human figures at Sh1,000 apiece, a task she undertook for a month.

During the engagement, she learnt where to get high-quality drawing materials and immediately set off recording her artwork from the beginning to the end and showcasing the end product on social media platforms.

“After some time, I started getting jobs and random interviews, making me able to take care of my needs,” says Sarah, who currently lives with her mother in Kambi Garba, Isiolo County.

She even bagged a prize for an art competition held at the Isiolo Youth Innovation Centre in September last year.

The Girl Generation’s Survivor Leadership Training, being implemented in Isiolo, Kajiado and Narok counties and funded by the UK government, has transformed Sarah’s life and mental health and offered her a platform to share her experiences.

Under the programme’s mother-daughter component, FGM survivors interact through a series of therapeutic activities, all meant to make them stay positive about life.

“I pay Sh100 fare every Saturday to go for the sessions that also include Yoga classes at the youth innovation centre. Besides sharing our experiences, we cry out our pain to offload the mental baggage.”

The survivors also have an opportunity to listen to the perspectives of those they feel failed in their responsibility through neglect or deliberately exposed them to GBV, and reconcile as part of the healing process.

Following the sessions, Sarah’s relationship with her mother has improved.

“My grandmother might have thought it was the best thing to do and I cannot blame them. I still believe the story would have been different if I was raised by my mother, but she tried her best to make us comfortable,” she says.

“I have my purpose and life is slowly gaining a meaning after I realised that being angry with things I cannot change would only drain me emotionally. I now care about them even though they hurt me.”

More than 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone FGM in 30 countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, with an estimated three million girls at risk of being subjected to FGM, annually according to WHO.

Gender roles

Gender roles requiring women to be submissive to their husbands, portraying men in control and with the right to discipline women are among the beliefs that perpetuate violence against girls and women.

Sarah seeks to use her art in the campaign against GBV by raising awareness of the human rights violations and being the voice for girls and women who cannot share their ugly stories.

“I want to encourage them not to burden themselves with thoughts but speak out because sharing is part of the healing process.”

She advocates that women be given space to make their own decisions. “We want to see women being respected like men and exposed to opportunities for economic empowerment. People must embrace change.”

Sarah earns up to Sh40,000 during a good month and Sh15,000 during a bad one, with her portraits selling at Sh4,000 upwards depending on size.

“The artwork has granted me some recognition and helped me receive orders from across the country,” she says, adding that she showcases her work mostly on TikTok.

A lover of fashion, she says culture should not limit women from taking up jobs perceived as the preserve of men.

Sarah is happy she is pursuing her passion and says nothing is worth ruining anyone’s peace of mind.

“You choose what you want and no matter how difficult that could be, keep trying. I managed and they, too, can,” she encourages GBV survivors.