For some the subject of female genital mutilation (FGM) may be a tired narrative, but to the women who continue to suffer health complications that come about with this tradition, it is a matter that should never fade from the face of the media.
Elizabeth Lemoyog is one of them. For 15 years she has been fighting the ant-FGM battle, traversing the vast Samburu County. The Business Daily met her when she was one of the guest speakers at a youth open forum at the Great County Inn in Archers Post, Samburu County, a gathering courtesy of the anti-FGM board and the United Nations population fund.
She walked with confidence ready to give one of her riveting lessons about the vice. With her, she was carrying different models of the vagina, each explaining how the female reproductive organ looks after a woman undergoes the various types of circumcision, as well as their effects especially during birth.
What made this day special was that she had an unusual audience comprising youth from different FGM hotspot counties in Kenya, among them morans, most of whom still held strong to the belief that a woman must be circumcised to be considered ‘complete’.
But that day, they were more than willing to listen to her as they painted the room with bright coloured outfits-complete Samburu traditional regalia; costumes normally preserved for special occasions.
She got on with her lesson, drawing one segment of the female reproductive part, after another, leaving the audience in disbelief and laughter as for some, this was the first time they were having a view of the vagina.
“This is the first time I am seeing this, considering that culturally, we don’t look at that part; even during sex,” said one of the morans.
For Elizabeth, this was the feedback she usually gets during her lessons; and in worst cases sometimes, forced to cut off her lectures due to protests mostly in the remotest areas within the county, especially while talking to Samburu elders.
She said her passion runs deeper than just the usual sensitisation campaigns that involve mere talks. Her mission is to to practically show not just the scars that FGM leaves on the female reproductive organ, but also the hardships women who have undergone the cut go through, especially during child birth.
Her calling has taken her to the most secluded villages, and in the process is playing a major role in the reduction of FGM cases not just in her home Samburu, but also in the surrounding counties.
But this hasn’t come easy. She has had to work hard, often putting her feet down in the faced of fierce pushback. In the process has developed a thick skin. “In my tradition it is a taboo to talk about this, let alone using replicas of the female reproductive organs, thus most time I face objections,” she said.
However, she is not showing any sign of softening her stance on this fight, herself having suffered the effects of female circumcision. “Apart from suffering the scars from the injuries I got after undergoing the procedure, I had so many child birth complications,” she added.
It is the same zeal that has pushed Sadia Hussein, 33. For more than a decade, the mother of three has traversed different parts of Tana River, preaching the same message.
Sadia has been at the forefront of anti-FGM campaigns in Tana River County, using some new methods to penetrate the much conservative Muslim community.
“My work includes talking openly about female circumcision and health challenges associated with it. My different approach is that I have been including religious leaders, victims and doctors in the whole conversation,” she said.
Targeting the ‘market’
While victims paint the picture of what they have to endure, the doctors are always at hand to confirm the medical problems that arise from FGM, while religious leaders neutralise the situation and calm the locals, and especially men who might be of different opinion.
“For instance in our culture, womanhood is never a subject matter for discussion. In fact, women aren’t allowed to speak about challenges of childbirth, and that is why it has been difficult to control this tradition, because men aren’t aware of how FGM contributes to maternal and infant mortality rates,” she explained.
Sadia’s aim is also to cut the “market” for the much favoured circumcised girls through football tournaments she organises targeting young men from the community.
“I want to convince our young boys that marrying an uncircumcised woman is the normal thing to do. By educating them from an early age, I will be killing the market for the circumcised girls thus deal with the vice permanently in the next generation.”
And her efforts are already bearing fruits. The vice has completely been kick out two villages, leading to their declarations as FGM free zones. She played a major role in turning three circumcisers into some of their fiercest anti-FGM campaigners.
Due to this, she won a number of accolades including last year’s recognition as a shujaa, as well as received the young achievers award two years ago.
Sadia has been waging the anti-FGM war since 2008. Like Elizabeth serious medical problems after the birth of her first born served as her wake up call.
But unlike Elizabeth, she made the choice to get the cut after she was teased by her peers for not being circumcised. “In Somali culture, a woman who hasn’t been circumcised is considered immature and unclean,” she explained.
Nothing could have prepared for the hell she underwent a few days later. She bled for days and endured a most excruciating pain.
According to the 2014 Kenya Demographic Health Survey (KDHS), the Somali community leads in terms of FGM prevalence rates in the country, standing at 94 percent, with type C (involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia) being the most common kind.
The World Health Organisation WHO (2006) report, indicates that FGM type C contributes to a number of negative maternal and neonatal outcomes among girls and women who have gone through it including increased risk of maternal deaths and adverse obstetric outcomes like caesarean section and post-partum haemorrhage.
It is such facts, Saidia said, that have kept her anti-FGM campaign fire burning, ignoring insults and the danger of attacks from some of her kinsmen who still think the outdated tradition should be upheld.
According to Bernadette Resian Loloju, the chief executive of the Anti-FGM Board Kenya, despite women especially from the FGM hotspot regions continuing to suffer, they still lag in the fight against female circumcision.
“Women from these regions are still the perpetrators since most still believe in this culture, a fact that has become a challenge in this fight. It is an uphill task to try and convince people otherwise about a tradition they’ve held dear for many years,” she added.
Loloju said that the anti-FGM war would only be won by ensuring the media continue to highlight FGM issues and also involve survivors in the fight. “For years, this narrative has ignored the survivors who can tell the full story. These survivors could be even career women or even political leaders who went through the cut and who still carry the shame of being circumcised,” she added.
Dr Ademola Olajide, United Nations Population Fund’s (UNFPA) Representative for Kenya said FGM should never be considered as a culture. “That is where we go wrong most of the time. Anything that subjects young girls and women to torture should not be considered a tradition, thus must be stopped,” he asserted.
There is need to engage the community at grass roots level in the fight against this vice, and make sure it comes to an end as per President Uhuru Kenyatta’s reaffirmation of the government’s commitment towards eradicating FGM by 2022, he said.