For the past five years, Leshan Kereto has been advocating against Female Genital Mutilation in Kenya. For the International Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM, Leshan has written this blogpost to raise awareness and share his own story of tackling FGM in his local community.
FGM is a practice that involves the removal of part or whole of the female external genitalia for non-medical reasons. It is an extreme form of human rights violation and discrimination against girls and women, yet according to UNICEF, more than 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone FGM, and an additional 3 million girls are at risk of undergoing FGM every year.
In Kenya, around 4 million women (or one in every five women) have been subjected to FGM. Of this, 11% are young girls between 14 and 19 years. While Kenya has made tremendous steps in ending FGM, the 2022 Kenya Demographic and Health Survey (KDHS) released on January 17, 2023, shows that the prevalence of FGM has declined by 6% in the last 8 years - proof that as a country we failed to achieve our target of zero FGM by end of 2022. This means the fire of this fight needs to be stoked.
Personally, I have interacted with so many FGM survivors in my community Narok, which is mainly occupied by the Maasai and located in an arid and semi-arid region 150 km to the west of Kenya’s capital city Nairobi.
One story told to me by, Enkeseni Liaram, one of the FGM survivors in my community and has worked with us as a girls’ team leader. I still remember that Saturday afternoon vividly. We were coming from a mentorship program, on girl child education and sexual/reproductive health forum when Enkeseni told me of a 12-year-old girl who had been subjected to FGM.
No one had informed her about the procedure and without giving her consent, she was mutilated. Her family told her she was clean and marriageable, at 12 years old! Joyce had gone on to narrate the ordeal of her healing process and how her life changed in just one night and one act.
It is the intensity of Joyce's emotions and the pain that vibrated through her voice as she narrated the story that birthed in me the need to join the fight against FGM. There was no other choice.
Reflect back on your life as a teenage girl. Or better yet think of your younger sister, daughter, niece, or a girl child that you hold dearly. It is likely that she attends school and hangs out with friends both at home and school. She feels home, secure and loved - a safe haven of belonging.
Now envision her facing discrimination and judgment from both peers and adults in the community because she hasn’t undergone a harmful procedure that is globally recognised as risky, both physically and mentally.
That is the story of so many girls in Narok County.
The Maasai people in Kenya are proud people who have deeply rooted traditional values and customs. Maasai girls are cut between the ages of 12 and 14 to mark their change from girl to woman. It forms part of the traditional rites of passage for girls, necessary for them to be considered adults in their community. Women and girls who have not undergone “the cut” are not considered pure women and cannot be asked for marriage within society.
Having been born and raised in a community that upholds FGM and seen how the practice affects women and girls' lives, I wanted to do something to change the narrative. In 2017, I founded Tareto Africa, a community-based organisation with an ambitious commitment to contribute to the noble cause of ending FGM and supporting FGM survivors.
In just five years the initiative has led hundreds of Anti-FGM grassroots campaigns across 25 (plus) primary and secondary schools within Narok and neighbouring counties such as Nakuru and West Pokot. Additionally, we have provided a platform for FGM survivors to sound the alarm necessary in fight to end FGM. In this context we have worked with FGM survivors like, Enkeseni in creating awareness to other girls on the risks that come with FGM.
We have also donated sanitary pads and conducted sexual reproductive health rights training within the community. So far, Tareto has reached 2,459 girls and rescued 22 girls from FGM, who with the help of well-wishers have been sponsored for high school education.
It gives me hope to see us empowering women and I believe we will be able to empower more girls through more initiatives and resources.
With the support of the Anti-FGM Board Kenya and the United Nations Populations Fund (UNFPA), Tareto Africa has reached 1,850 university students and successfully set up six student-led Anti-FGM Committees nationally that are involved in data collection, awareness building and boosting evidence-based advocacy in our campaigns.
But the journey of activism is not without its challenges. FGM is practiced in various communities for various deep-rooted reasons. In my community, it is a cultural practice that initiates a girl into womanhood. As a cultural practice, people who practice it believe in its good; and that it improves marriageability among young girls as well as “cleanses them.” Furthermore, FGM is not only a Kenya’s problem. Neither is it an African’s problem. It is a global issue. Available data from large-scale representative surveys show that FGM has been practised in countries across the world.
Changing such a social norm that has been passed from one generation to another - and even defines people - is not easy. Thus, the need for extensive mass education in communities that practice it.