A Cruel Cut in the Name of Tradition: One Woman’s Story of How She Fought Back against Female Genital Mutilation
The terror of what was to come overwhelmed me. I could run no more and knew that for my mother to be spared from being beaten and from possible death, I had to submit to my father’s will. I was to be circumcised, and could do nothing to stop it.
Back then I knew nothing about the risk of bleeding to death, the transmission of infectious diseases, the permanent damage done to a girl’s life – all these things that can occur with Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). I just believed devoutly that it is wrong and harmful. I did not find anyone who was able to protect me though.
I was only 12, when my father took me from school and told me it is time for me to be circumcised. I asked my mother for help. She said that, as a woman, she could not resist my father’s will. “All you can do is to run away,” she said. I asked my sister Esther. “Mother is right,” she answered, “they will force you.” She helped by giving me some money. So one morning I caught the bus to an older sister who lived in Nairobi.
My father started to ask: “Where is Naingol’ai?” (My Maasai name.) My mother denied she knew where I was. However, my father found out and started to beat my mother and threatened her: “If Naingol’ai does not return within a week, I will beat you to death!” My mother wrote me a letter. She was very scared and pleaded with me to come back. Anxious about losing my mother, I returned home. I found my mother lying in a dark corner of her hut, stone-still. I thought she was dead and I had come too late. My father had beaten her so badly with his traditional Maasai stick – her head, her legs, her hands … she was injured everywhere. Her eyes were so swollen that she could not see but only hear me. I was in such a state of anguish. “Thank you for coming back,” my mother whispered, exhausted and in pain. Three days later, the circumcision ceremonies began.
There were 30 girls to be circumcised. As I come from a very large Maasai family, my father having six wives and I being one of around 50 children by him. Six of the girls to be circumcised were my sisters; the others came from the neighbourhood. We received a new dress and most of the girls were excited, completely in ignorance of what was going to happen. Some of the older women were making jokes, saying that if they were young again they would run away. No one said why though.
Although FGM was illegal in Kenya even then, in the 1990’s, people were not prosecuted by the police, and the teachers in school did not even mention FGM and why it was prohibited. It was an expected course that this would happen to all girls in our community. According to the traditional beliefs, the circumcision turns a girl into a woman who is fit for marriage. Circumcision is said to “clean” the girl and to guarantee that she will be a faithful wife.
The circumcision ceremony started with two days of dancing and singing. Then, on the third day at six a.m. we were taken outside. All our family and neighbours attended; small children were bouncing around, playing and laughing. The girls who were going to be circumcised laid down on cow skins, two to three girls to each one. Then a woman came along with a knife and she cut us. The procedure took a minute for each girl. This was performed without anaethestic, no cleaning or disinfection and with the same knife. To cry out during this ceremony would have been seen as shameful, so no one screamed. The pain was very short lived initially. However the pain that came later was terrible.
We were moved into a big house and had someone care for us, usually an older sister. We were too weak to get up alone or to go to the toilet without help. For a whole week, there was nothing but tears and pain. Nothing made the pain go away. The girls cried all day and night, unable to eat or sleep. I lost a lot of blood. It was a relief when, at last, I lost consciousness.
I was lucky enough to survive. However, many girls bleed to death after being cut. Other girls die later due to infections that are caused by the procedure, HIV/AIDS being one of the diseases that are spread by the cuttings. Moreover FGM causes an increased risk of childbirth complications and newborn deaths, as the scar tissue can delay the childbirth process. According to the World Health Organization, about 92 million African girls age 10 years and above have suffered FGM.
The cutting was not the end of this story though. It is customary to be married soon after circumcision. I was to be married only one month after being cut. One morning, I heard there was a visitor, a man, about 60 years old and married with five wives. I asked my mother who is it? She said: “This is the man who wants to marry you. He has brought food, beverages, and blankets and is talking to your father now.” I was upset, “No-way am I going to marry this stranger!” Three weeks later, the man came back and the final date for the marriage was set and a dowry agreed. So I knew I had to run away again, and this time it had to be permanent. At sunrise I began my journey to the Maasai Mara Game Reserve. I knew there was work and perhaps someone who could help me. I walked all day until the evening. When I arrived I was lucky because a man from my home district was willing to help me. So I found a job there.
Back home, this time my mother did not wait for her husband to start beating her as a means of making me return home. She took my youngest brother (fortunately all my other siblings were old enough and had left home) and escaped to her own family. My mother’s older brother talked to my father and calmed the situation. Eventually, father promised he would not beat my mother anymore. However, he said I was no longer his daughter and never wanted to see me again. I was cast out.
I didn’t see my father for seven years. During those years change was taking place for the better. Although my brothers did not help me when I fought against being cut, they refused to circumcise their own daughters. My father pressurized them a great deal but they refused. In the end, even my father was persuaded to change his mind. When we met after all those years he said to me: “Come home Naing’olai. You are welcome.” He respected me for the stand I had taken.
The Tareto Maa Organization was founded on a personal vision and a determination to stop this barbaric practice that happened to me. I wanted to offer protection to young girls who had nowhere to go for help. I spoke with many people in my community who agreed to support the task of protecting the girls from circumcision and child marriage. So Tareto Maa was founded in April, 2009.
In 2009, there were seven girls who asked for shelter. Within 18 months this number had risen to 27 girls, all sheltered in private houses. Soon there were no more homes available for girls who came to ask for protection. We had to send new girls back home. I will never forget their tears and their despairing question: “Why have you helped some of the children but not me?”
By October 2010, we raised funds for a shelter, helped by a growing number of supporters, especially from Europe and North America. This was opened, 1st January, 2011. Presently 96 girls are in our care. Our campaigning within the local community has also seen successes. Many families are starting to re-think the practice of circumcision and child marriage. But the fight is not over yet.
I want to offer girls the protection which I and many others like me needed, but did not have when we were young. This is why Tareto Maa was founded and this is what creates an impetus for it to grow further. There can be an alternate rite of passage for a girl to become a woman; where she will benefit her family by having health and an education. Tareto Maa works towards this goal. However, many girls are still at risk. There is still a long way to go.