Centre provides safe haven for girls escaping FGM in Samburu
While Christmas holidays are a time for joy and celebration, to the girls in Samburu County the festive season come with the worst nightmare.
While Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) has been banned, it’s still carried out behind the scenes during the Christmas season.
According to Sister Francisca Nzilani, the girl’s parents and relatives take advantage of the long break to force their daughters to undergo the harmful practice.
However, there is hope for the girls, thanks to Sister Nzilani who started Immaculate Girls’ Rescue Centre located some 40 kilometres away from the Samburu County headquarters of Maralal town.
The centre which has been in operation for 11 years has seen hundreds of girls benefit from the accommodation, education and counselling services provided.
The first girl who landed at the centre had escaped home for fear of being forced to undergo the banned practice being promoted by some parents and elders in the name of culture.
Says Sister Nzilani: “Around here, the centre at times turns into a battle field. Some of the girls’ relatives send morans (armed youth) or motor-bike operators to spy on girls suspected to be here. They are then abducted.”
Meanwhile, the founder of the rescue centre remains hawk-eyed in fear of raiders as she goes about the daily chores of figuring out the day’s menu, starting off at the crack of dawn at 4 and making sure the girls leave for nearby schools and how to fund-raise fees for their next school term.
During the interview, Sister Nzilani rose and raised the curtain of the modest office.
She peered through the window to establish what she thought was a commotion in the compound of the girls’ rescue centre located near the famous Suguta Mar Mar Valley as well as sprawling and bustling trading centre.
She held her breath and prayed hoping that it was not another raid by intruders dispatched by either relatives or husbands abandoned by girls they had given refuge.
A group of girls shut the premises gate behind them as 14-year-old Nasiiku Lororua dashes into the compound of the centre supported by World Vision officials as other girls provide cover from behind.
As Lororua arrives at the centre, a layer of dust is spread on the frail feet and sandals, holding tightly on to a green paper bag with one hand.
Inside are two underpants and a single dress — the only items Lororua was able to grab as she fled the house belonging to an aunt in Mararal town.
Lororua gasps for breath and looks haggard, an indication that the girl who has been on a long flight.
Lororua tip-toes into the office, as sister-in-charge of the rescue centre, with an easy composure, rises to usher in the new arrival.
She quickly reads the mood of those present and stands next at the door step and give reasons for storming the centre.
The girl has no apologies for the unannounced arrival as she recounts the 40 kilometre journey through the wilderness of Kisima stretching from Maralal town.
She has fled to escape ‘the knife’ done during school holidays and the festive period when young girls face the circumcisers’ knife in the remote pastoralist region.
The fear of ‘the cut’ at her age makes Lororua quiver, explaining the plot by the aunt who had invited wazees — elderly men — to negotiate a dowry payment settlement and bless the ceremony.
“I worked as a house-help then one day she pulled me out of school. She did not give reasons for this. I came to know about the real reasons when I heard about the visit by the old men,” recalls Lororua. She adds: “I have had a bad experience about ‘the cut’ after some close relatives died from excessive bleeding. Some suffered serious complications and diseases. I defied my aunt and fled.”
However, not all girls are as lucky as Lororua. Fifteen year-old Sophie was circumcised and married off to a 50-year-old villager. She could not defy the elders and her parents.
“She was ordered to marry the man. After sometime, she escaped from home in Kisima,” says Sister Nzilani. She notes: “Some are married-off to old men who have even suffered stroke. It is a serious violation of the rights of the girl child.”
Sister Nzilani notes that banning of the practice is also a serious human rights issue.
“Sophie’s husband demanded that the girl’s parents replace her with a younger sister or return the dowry. When this failed plans were set in motion to abduct the girl from the centre,” Sister Nzilani recalls.
Among the Samburu, girls are subjected to the harmful practice which doubles as a cultural practice and rite of passage.
To the pastoralist community, FGM also signifies a coming of age and preparation for marriage. The ages vary but most girls undergo FGM between 12 and 18 years with some being cut as early as age seven . It’s noted that 27 percent of girls and women aged between 15 and 49 have under gone FGM but prevalence is extremely varied among provinces. This ranges from a shocking 98 percent in the North Eastern Province to one percent in Western Province. The practice is more prevalent among certain ethnic groups and is common among the Somali, Kisii and Kuria among others.
According to Siddharth Chatterjee, United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Kenya Country representative, FGM is among various forms of violence against women and girls and is one of the most prevalent human rights violation in the world. It knows no social, economic or national boundaries.
“The genital mutilation knows no social, economic or national boundaries. Worldwide, an estimated one in three women will experience physical or sexual abuse in her lifetime,” says Chatterjee.
Gender-based-violence undermines the health, dignity, security and autonomy of its victims, yet it remains shrouded in a culture of silence. Victims of violence can suffer sexual and reproductive health consequences, including forced and unwanted pregnancies, unsafe abortions, traumatic fistula, sexually transmitted infections including HIV, and even death.
According to Federica Mogherini European Union (EU) High Representative and Vice-President of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, the practice is a blatant violation of human rights and gender discrimination.
Last year, the European Commission had allocated about €8 million in projects preventing and combating violence against women and girls within the EU and €20 million in fighting against the harmful practices abroad. The EU continues to fund humanitarian projects that respond to gender-based violence in emergencies and crises.