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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Memories of my circumcision have haunted me to date

April 16, 2011
Daily Nation
Caroline Wafula

Nominated MP Sophia Abdi Noor tends to speak forcefully on most issues she is concerned about. But when she rose to contribute on the Bill to outlaw female circumcision in Parliament last week, her voice dropped as the House went silent.

It was perhaps the first time an MP was giving a deeply personal story which contributing to debate.

Female circumcision, said Sophia, was the cause of a harrowing experience during menstruation, her first sexual experience, and the eventual childbirth.

This, she said, is the driving force behind her passionate fight against the practice, which Parliament now seeks to outlaw with the Bill sponsored by Mt Elgon MP Fred Kapondi.

She was barely eight years old when together with seven of her agemates, she was handed over to a traditional circumciser who took them through the painful process of the cut. It has been many years since, and she has accomplished so much in life, but the incident remains fresh in her mind.

The old woman who took them through the process was going blind, she says, and three of the eight who underwent the operation died due to excessive bleeding. One of them was her very close friend.

Luckily for her, the bleeding was not too much and she had a saviour at hand. Her father, who was a policeman, took her to a hospital in Garissa using a police Land Rover.

Completely changed

 She was in hospital for a week and underwent a transfusion of four pints of blood. After she left the hospital, her life completely changed and her mother was also affected as she felt guilty for ‘blessing’ her daughter to undergo the rite.

The beginning of her complications was her first menstrual period, which was slow as the opening of her vagina was small, restricting the flow and her period lasted up to seven days. This would mean missing classes for the whole period and she would often lag behind in class.

Sophia does not remember her wedding day as the happy occasion it usually is for most people.

“It was a night I literally don’t want to remember,” she said. Her husband was equally affected due to the frustrations they encountered trying to consummate their union.

It took them three days before her husband could open up to friends about their frustrations of being unable to consummate their marriage.

“I was completely closed and we could not even share with our mothers who kept checking our bedsheets for blood. They got worried and asked the very young couples of our age to come and find out what the problem was,” she recalls.

More problems

She was later taken to hospital for an operation although the eventual consummation was still difficult because of the wound from the operation.

She would also have problems later as she gave birth to her first child, a baby boy. She had prolonged labour for four days and she could not undergo a Caesarean section because the child had already moved to exit position. The baby had to be removed by a vacuum, slightly injuring his head.

Ms Noor says it is this experience of her life that propelled her to launch anti-female circumcision campaigns.

“So many girls have died out of this, there is no documentation because this is done in secret, but this is killing and that is why I am talking about it,” she said.

She said it’s a very painful psychological experience. with some dying and that “there is no homestead that has no sad story arising from circumcision,” says Ms Noor.

She explains that as a child from a pastoralist community, circumcision was a compulsory rite.
“It was not a matter of consultation, it was even a taboo to talk about i. It was a very strong belief,” she says.

Everyone believed it was a religious obligation to undergo the rite, and the conviction was that a woman who was not circumcised was unclean and not fit for marriage.

It was also believed that God could not hear prayers of an uncut woman. But the MP does not blame her mother for the ordeal. She understands too well that like many other women in her community, she was brought up to believe it was a religious rite.

Going through the process meant cleansing daughters for marriage. “No one wanted their daughter to be a ‘haram’ or unfit for marriage,” she explains.

A part from the belief that circumcising the girl made her clean, it was also believed that the process protected her virginity.

“Once taken to her husband, he would know that she had been properly taken care of,” the MP explains. The third reason for the cut is that the community was scared of girls who were not circumcised, easily branding them prostitutes.

This is because it was believed not going through the cut left a woman sensitive sexually hence could easily turn to prostitution.

In one village

 Her campaign started when, while working on a Unicef Programme in Garissa where she was seconded by the Ministry of Education, she came across a circumcision rite in one of the villages she was visiting.

She immediately went dizzy after memories of her childhood experience flashed back. She sat down in silence but just a few minutes later, she and her colleagues heard a cry from the hut where the rite was being conducted.

The girl had fainted from the loss of blood but she passed away on the way to hospital. That incident marked the beginning of her activism against female circumcision. It was not easy owing to opposition from especially the religious leaders. But she was not going to give up.

“I knew deeply that was not my religion,” she says.

With this conviction, she approached some sheikhs and asked them to go through the Koran to find out whether indeed the Muslim religion required that women go through it.
It was with much relief that she came to learn from the sheikhs that it was nowhere in the holy books of Islam.

“I immediately mobilised meetings with the community and would later receive support from the international community,” she says.

She founded Womankind Kenya to spearhead the campaigns. She also started a centre for orphaned girls and those vulnerable to female circumcision, which also offered education.

The centre currently has 120 uncircumcised girls, having grown from an initial number of 18. It has girls aged between six and 23.

“People talk of diseases that come naturally and cause complications and kill, but this one is a bigger disease by our own making and people just don’t talk about it,” the MP says, noting that the practice goes on in several other communities in Kenya, secretly.

She is grateful to her colleagues for passing the Bill that will boost the war on female circumcision.