In Kenya, hundreds of schoolgirls don’t want to leave boarding school and go home over the holidays. Instead, some of them spend their school holidays in hiding, afraid that if they go home, they might be forced to take part in a coming-of-age ceremony. These rites, which often take place at this time of year, usually include female genital mutilation. Our Observer went to meet a schoolteacher who is trying to keep schools open during the holidays to act as refuges for these girls.
In West Pokot County, which is located on the far western side of Kenya on the border with Uganda, an estimated 85% of women have undergone female genital mutilation, or FGM. Commonly referred to as “excision”, this practice ranges from the total to the partial removal of a woman or girl’s external sexual organs, usually the clitoral hood, for non-medical reasons.
Once they have undergone FGM, most girls are forced to marry and do not return to school. In order to protect these girls during the school holidays, some teachers have started transforming school buildings into temporary refuges for girls escaping mutilation.
“Families take advantage of the school holidays to organise coming-of-age ceremonies including FGM and marriage”
December is the “season” for genital mutilation. In Kenya, these holidays last from early November to the end of December — 64 days in total. The other school holidays, which occur in April and August, are only about two weeks long. Families take advantage of the fact that their daughters are at home for such an extended period in order to organise traditional coming-of-age ceremonies, including FGM and marriage.
Because of this risk, some teachers have decided to keep their schools open as a refuge for their female students during these long holidays. One of those teachers is Mr Lokelima, the school principal at Nakwijit Primary School in the Pokot region, who I met earlier this month. He spends his vacation days with these girls, even over Christmas. Sometimes, he organises activities for them. Other times, the girls entertain themselves. In total, I saw about 20 girls at his school and all were between the ages of 8 and 15.
These schoolgirls are spending their school holidays in Nakwijit Primary School in the Pokot region to avoid going home and facing the risk of FGM. This photo was taken by our Observer.
Mr Lokelima told me that his female students spend the day at school and go home at night. However, there are several other schools in the region as well as a few churches where girls can stay overnight. Several humanitarian organisations have also set up camps called “safe zones” for girls who have run away from their families.
"Marriage is a source of revenue for the parents"
Last year, I met a young girl from the region who was married off to a man as his fifth wife! She was able to flee and find refuge at Chepkogh, a boarding school.
The region of Pokot is rural and many communities are extremely isolated, which makes it hard to know what goes on there. This is why some communities are able to carry on practising FGM: they are much less likely to get arrested than in more urban areas.
Many of the villages in Pokot are extremely poor. When a girl is mutilated, she is being prepared for marriage, which is a source of revenue for the parents. Often, families don’t even care if the man marrying their daughter already has a wife or if he’s old. What counts for them is the dowry, or how many goats or cows the new husband will give to the girl’s father in exchange for her hand in marriage.
"Organisations organise alternative rites of passage"
During the school holidays, several organisations and churches invite families to attend classes explaining the dangers of FGM.
Certain humanitarian organisations have also started organising alternative rites of passage that don't use FGM as a symbol of the girl having come of age.
Between December 9 and 13, the organisation Beyond FGM organised an alternative rite of passage in the village of Samich, in the Pokot region. Both girls and their parents spent five days in workshops teaching about the dangers of mutilation. At the end of the event, there was a final ceremony, complete with parades and dances.
For the time being, protecting the girls at school is the best solution that we have. However, we also need to organise more educational seminars. I also think that prevention campaigns need to be directed at those who continue to practise FGM: we need to speak with community elders and educate them about the risks. We know that some of them might attend a workshop then go home and continue carrying out mutilations. It’s a real challenge that we have to confront head on.
Excision has been illegal in Kenya since 2011. Those caught breaking this law face heavy fines. However, the law isn’t enforced. A 2013 study conducted by UNICEF found that about 27 percent of Kenyan women between the ages of 15 and 49 have suffered female genital mutilation.
Genital mutilation has no health benefits, contrary to claims by those who practise it. Instead, it poses many risks.
Using the same instrument to circumcise several girls and failing to sterilise it in between operations increases the risk of spreading HIV. The cutting, which is usually done with razor blades, can cause haemorrhages, infections, and in some cases can even lead to death. Women who undergo FGM may suffer from serious physical and psychological consequences their entire lives.