Search This Blog

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Kenya: Ill Chamus Community Declares War Against Female Circumcision

July 14, 2011
Nairobi Star
Pauline Odhiambo

For Sh2,000 per girl, 50-year-old Nchoo Ngochila would move from one village to the next circumcising up to 20 girls in a day.

Her tools of trade a rusty piece of metal cut out from mabati (iron sheet roofing) then bent and filed to a cutting edge. This she would sometimes alternate with a razor blade but would on most occasions prefer mabati which she claims is more efficient for female circumcision.

Today, Ngochila sells mandazi (doughnuts) to schoolgoing children in Marigat District in the Rift Valley Province where she has lived all her life. She stopped circumcising young girls two years ago after attending an FGM seminar where she discovered that obstructed labour was among the effects of female genital cutting. "It is difficult to give birth when you have been circumcised and I say this from my own experience in giving birth," says the wizened Ngochila who looks much older than her 50 years. "From that seminar, I learned that labour pain is less severe for women who haven't been circumcised; they give birth quicker and easier compared to those of us who have been circumcised."

With three children in secondary school, Ngochila says she now finds it harder to pay their school fees but is nonetheless adamant that she will not fall back to circumcising any more girls for a living. "Nowadays I barely make enough money for food but that's okay because I agreed to stop circumcising girls for a good reason. Plus, my children are Christians now and they are against me cutting any more girls."

Like Ngochila, a growing number of people from the Ill Chamus community in Marigat are progressively shunning the idea of female genital mutilation. The area chief Francis ole Kiprich says that at least 40 per cent of the 40,000 plus members of the Ill Chamus community members have ceased circumcising their daughters. This has led to a marked rise in the education levels for girls within the region where just over 10 girls have made it to university level.

However, uncircumcised girls are still widely shunned by a community that perceives them as childish due to their uncircumcised state. "Among the Ill Chamus, a girl is recognised as an adult only after she has been circumcised. It is the only way she can earn the respect of the community and participate in traditional ceremonies."

Indeed, 20-year old Janet Nang'oi is living proof of the stigma uncircumcised girls face in Marigat. In 2003, Nang'oi dodged circumcision by hiding out in the bush during an initiation ceremony where she was to be circumcised together with her sister and other girls in her village. She has since become the butt of cruel jokes by her age mates and younger siblings who now deem her too "immature " for their company. She says, "My brothers won't even let me cook for them or wash their clothes because they say I'm a child who cannot be trusted even with the most basic of chores. Even when I go to fetch water, my age mates refuse to walk with me because they are embarrassed to be seen with me."

In spite of the stigma, Nang'oi pushed on with her studies and is now an education major at the Egerton University, Njoro campus. Most of the girls she was to be circumcised with in the same group soon after dropped out of school to get married.

Ole Kiprich explains that FGM is leading cause of low education levels among girls in Marigat as many are unable to continue with their studies once they are married as was the case for 40-year-old Nasaru Kiriampu who was circumcised and married off at 13.

Kiriampu became the fourth wife to an old man with whom she bore children albeit with some difficulty during labour. However, in the recent years, Kiriampu has learned more about the dangers of circumcision but still believes it to be part and parcel of life in Marigat. With a hint of irony in her voice, Kiriampu says, "One of my daughters is now in secondary school and I tell her to wait till she finishes university to get circumcised but I know the more she gets educated the more she will be reluctant to get circumcised." With the assistance of church organizations and NGOs set up within the region, Kiriampu has joined a women's group which urges girls to advance their studies before undergoing circumcision.

"I've seen many cases of babies getting stuck in the birth canal during labour and their mothers have to be rushed to Kabarnet hospital where they can deliver safely and with the assistance of doctors." She observes that with education more girls are avoiding circumcision and thus may avoid obstructed labour when they are of age.

On June 24, Kiriampu, Nang'oi and Ole Kiprich were among hundreds of people to sign a public declaration on the abandonment of female genital mutilation at the Ill Chamus Cultural Centre in Marigat District. The ceremony was presided over by Dr James Nyikal, Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Development.

However, even as the ink dries on that declaration, it would be wishful-thinking to claim that female circumcision has been completely wiped out in Marigat as Ole Kiprich reveals that most circumcision ceremonies today take place in secret for fear of arrests by the local administration.

Nonetheless, many of the residents have taken up advocacy against FGM in favour of education which they believe will help decrease poverty levels among the Ill Chamus of Marigat.