Tuesday, June 16, 2009
June 16, 2009 Frederick Womakuyu Kampala — Mercy Naserian had a grand dream. The bright eyed 14-year-old wanted to become a lawyer and help her Masai people settle community disputes (criminal or civil). At the age of 10 and in P.5, Naserian topped her class of 100 pupils and her teachers were sure she would fulfill her dream. But in 2005, Naserian was married off to a 69-year-old man. According to Naserian, the man gave her parents 45 heads of cattle. "I thought it was for my older sister," she narrates, tears welling in her eyes. But when she learnt that the cows were her bride price, she sought advice from one of her educated cousins. "I told her I wanted to become an important person in my community to help other girls who have been oppressed by culture," she says. Many men in the Masai community think of their daughters as a source of income. When a man comes to the home intending to marry the girl, he will bring the father 40 or 50 cows in exchange. The girl will then be circumcised first before she is given away. I recently met Naserian at her school on a trip organised for journalists by the US-based Population Reference Bureau (PRB), funded by USAID, to learn the mechanisms different countries use to fight female genital mutilation (FGM), a practice where a girl's/woman's partial or whole external genitalia is mutilated to initiate her from childhood to adult, according to people who do it. Despite her father's intentions to give her away in marriage and also have her mutilated, Naserian was determined in her desire to be educated. "My cousin told me that there was a school that caters for girls forced to undergo FGM, early marriage and sexual abuse." Without the knowledge of her parents, Naserian went to Africa Inland Church (AIC) Boarding School in Kajiado where the abused girls are housed and educated, courtesy of Forum for African Women Educationalists (FAWE). "I was admitted in the school, but even after this, my journey wasn't easy," she says. Naserian's family stormed the school and demanded for her. "They were armed with pangas and spears. Aided by the administration police, we told them to let her study and marry her off later," says Nicholas Muniu, the school's principal. Realising that the school was not ready to let the girl go, the family left and has never returned. Naserian has been in the school for four years and has never gone back home for holidays or seen her parents. "I am not worried about what they think as long as I complete my studies. I know when I become an important person in the community, they will run after me," she says. Naserian's story is just one among many. Every girl at the school has a story to tell, but perhaps none of the stories highlights cruelty like that of 13-year-old Elizabeth Naiko, a P.7 pupil. Naiko vividly remembers the day a 70-year-old man brought 45 heads of cattle and wanted to marry her. "Before I could go, he wanted me mutilated. I cried from morning to evening, but my parents didn't let me go," she says. Naiko was mutilated the next day under the careful watch of her husband-to-be. "I cried and this may have saved me. The man said I was a coward and wasn't willing to marry me," she adds. He went away without saying a word, leaving my parents cursing me. After one month of healing, the parents tried to marry Naiko off to another man. "When he came with 30 cows, they sent me to the shop to buy meat. Instead, I went to my aunt's home," she says. Her aunt is educated and listened to her. Naiko was taken to the AIC school where she has been for three years. "At least my parents have come to realise that education is important. They often come to visit me," she says. Naiko also goes home for holidays and helps other girls. "When I go home, I sensitise other girls about the need to embrace education." It is this sensitisation that helped 14-year-old Esther Nashipayi keep her dreams of becoming a banker alive. At only 10 years old, Nashipayi was abducted by a 71-year-old man on the orders of her father. "I was raped and then circumcised. The man paid my father 40 heads of cattle," Nashipayi tearfully narrates. After nearly bleeding to death, the man got scared and abandoned Nashipayi in his hut. "I crawled slowly to Kajiado highway. I was rescued by a Good Samaritan and taken to hospital," she says. "After I recovered and narrated my story, he brought me to AIC school." Nashipayi, whose name means "peace", says she wants to become a banker to help unfortunate people in her society. "I found out that despite the fact that many people blame culture for our people's backwardness, poverty is deeply rooted in our society. It is forcing people to marry off their daughters early in exchange for bride price," she says. Muniu agrees. "There was a case where the family had lost their livestock to drought and they wanted to give away their daughter to replace the animals. But after the school offered them money, they allowed the daughter to continue with her studies." Muniu, who understands the value pastoral communities attach to their daughters, says it has not been easy rescuing the girls. "Sometimes the parents have defeated us. They feel that when their daughters go to school, they stop listening to them." But Muniu says using community leaders, the Police and civil society, the parents are beginning to learn that FGM, early marriage and sexual abuse violates the rights of girls. "The chiefs used to be part of the problem. But since the government started sacking chiefs who encourage early marriage and FGM, many chiefs have denounced it," Muniu says. He adds that they have engaged the community in reconciliation. Muniu says as many as 65% of the girls in the Masai community are married off early. Over 90% of the girls undergo genital mutilation annually, according to Dr. Guyo Jadesa, a consultant obstetrician/gynaecologist at Kenyatta Hospital, Kenya. Dr. Jadesa says the Kenyan national FGM prevalence stands at 32%, compared to Uganda's 0.6%. A teacher at AIC, Catherine Koroupoi, says over 300 girls who were rescued recently will soon join the school. "The problem is getting sponsors for them," she says. FAWE continues to sponsor most of the girls but they are overwhelmed by the large number. The school was founded by the African Inland Church in 1959 to promote girls' education. "After independence, the government took over. In the 1990s, too many girls in the Masai community were being forced into FGM and early marriage," Muniu says. "In 1996, we rescued the first girl," Muniu says. She is now a teacher and is married to an MP from the Masai community. "In 10 years, we have managed to rescue a total of 670 girls," Muniu says. "They have become our ambassadors and many are helping to get other girls into school. "Uganda can also start a girls' school to rescue abused girls. It has worked for us," he advises.