When a girl of five is told that she must do something for her culture, she will never think much about it. Especially if she lives in one of the remote areas of a country where access to healthcare and even basic education is a challenge. All she knows is that she needs to play with her age mates and also help out with the minor details in the house. Occasionally she will see her elder siblings go off and after sometime come back with some sort of behavior change, more respect is accorded to them and they will refuse certain names. This change will be much more seen if she has elder sisters with whom there is a slight age difference. But will she truly know what it all means from must a glance?
Most likely not. It will take years and years of being told what she must undergo when she is a certain age (seasons) for her to become a woman and be able to be a member of the community. Plus there will be festivities just like what her big sister got and presents plus she will marriage material. In some communities, marriage material may be spelt out or it may be kept hush hush to her. She will be curious as to what it is that happens.
All these form part of what has become known as one of the world’s worst practices in relation to women’s health as a whole. The actual act in itself is quite horrid. The girl will be woken up one night and lead out by her mother, grandmother (the most common relative), paternal aunts and maybe other female relatives. She will be forced onto an area where there are other girls who are her age and asked to spread her legs. Then the old lady will come and cut up her genital areas. She will be held down as the razor cuts through her and no matter her screams, nothing will come out of them. Then the stitching will be done just after the application of herbs to ensure that there is no infection. The stitching tool? A thorn cut off from an acacia tree. Taut string is used to ensure that the stitches hold up and a slight hole left for her to be able to pass urine. Some communities will also ask that the feet of the girl be bound such that she can only take small steps when she is walking. The girl will be kept in isolation to ensure that she heals completely.
The pain from cutting through such sensitive parts is quite unimaginable and very few girls can be able to make through the cutting phase only. They will most likely faint or some will even die due to massive blood flow. Should they survive this, then there remains the healing process which means that the girl is kept in isolation and is not allowed to be near her family at all. She will have to pee through the tiny opening and while the feet are bound, she has to pee all over herself. The saltiness of the urine will be like acid poured upon a wound. Many have described it as thus and they will faint in the process.
While most girls at the age that this is likely to take place, ages 9 to 15, will be either playing or learning how to decorate their dolls, some Kenyan communities will advice their girl child to go through this route of having to get “dismembered” just so that she can be deemed a woman. They will often be shunned if they do not do it and some are even expelled from their homes by their own mothers. And knowing that they cannot live with the shame of having not undergone such a cultural ritual, they will be run away and be condemned to a life of poverty and misery. But having the cut does not guarantee you not to suffer at all. A few months after the cut, most of these girls will already be marriage material and they can be married off to older men, who can pass for their grandfathers, for a few heads of emaciated cattle.
A married man’s relatives will want to see whether he can sire kids or not. This places pressure upon the girl to engage in sex with the sole aspect of getting a kid. Sex will be painful since, though the outside has “healed”, the inside is yet to heal plus the psychological aspect of it all. Well, she can always take it in and go ahead but once she is pregnant, then the inevitable happens. She will either lose the child during pregnancy, at birth, she will die at childbirth or both mother and child die at childbirth.
The death of the mother is always one of the most disastrous outcomes of this outdated practice that was said to be performed upon girls so that they follow culture and keep their womanhood. But this has now lead to massive deaths and in some areas of Kenya, even where there is education, some of these girls will be withdrawn from school just to undergo this practice. The chance of them coming back to school stands at almost 0% since they are most likely to be married off. Should they come back to school, there ‘uncut’ colleagues will be making fun of them saying how backward they are.
In short a practice, that is meant to help girls, as had been seen in the past, is now wrecking the lives of these young girls and scarring them forever. Some parents are even adamant that whatever may come, let it be since they are their daughters and no one can tell them anything else. In light of this, the government of Kenya, through collaborations with several NGOs, has empowered some of these traditional circumcisers to start offering talks to the girls instead of having to subject them to the ancient tradition of cutting them up. This has worked to some extent although some of the FGM still continues. Law enforcement officers and the provincial administration are the one tasked with ensuring that this (female genital mutilation) does not happen at the local level although some of them are susceptible to bribery from the parents of these girls.
Churches have been taking up some of these girls once they learn of their predicament and try to rehabilitate them. But they are also not 100% successful since some parents will say that their daughters were kidnapped and resort to the crooked law enforcement officers. The law has outlawed it but some of the officers are hell bent on getting rich at the expense of the future of these young girls and according to the UNICEF, it is estimated that about 32% of Kenya’s adult female (ages 15-49) population has undergone FGM while about 24% of the girl child has undergone the practice.
While reconstructive surgery would have worked for some other forms of bodily disfigurement, it is virtually impossible due to the remoteness of the areas where this form of mutilation occurs. But worse is the kind of psychological trauma that the girl will face in her day to day life. She will never be able to describe herself as the others who had not undergone FGM will describe themselves and the sense of shame she might feel if she were to come across a guy since she won’t be like the others that he has seen.