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Imprisoned women who carried out FGM begs for forgiveness, ready to end the act

By Erick Abuga | Published Tue, September 26th 2017 at 00:00, Updated September 25th 2017 at 23:55 GMT +3
Grace Sitienei a prisoner at Kisii women Prison during an interview at the facility on 22/09/2017.Grace is serving 3 year jail term after she was found guilty of practicing the act at Emurua Dikri Tansmara Narok County.(Photo: Sammy Omingo/Standard)

Mirriam Chelangat, 21, was sentenced to three years in jail by the High Court in June last year.

Her crime? Undergoing the female cut, or female genital mutilation (FGM). She was arrested by the area chief on the same day she was circumcised.

She was still bleeding.

Ms Chelangat, a mother of one, says hers was a personal decision. She explains that she decided to undergo the cut to avoid the constant taunting from her age-mates who had gone through it before her.

More than a year into her jail term, she still cannot understand why an age-old ritual performed by her great-grandparents should attract such a painful punishment.

"Life in prison is hard. It is a painful reality that I could have avoided. I never thought that such a decision could get me arrested and consequently jailed," she says.

Changing attitudes

Chelangat maintains jailing more women like her might not be effective in winning the war against FGM. The battle, she says, might must start with winning minds.

As long as society continues to quietly frown on women who have not faced the cut, more girls like her might end up in jail - for succumbing to the intense pressure.

“The name-calling and stigmatisation in our community has led to several girls leading lonely lives,” she says.

Somewhere on the manicured lawns of the prison, Janet Chelenga, 28, and her husband, Paul Kiplangat, share a meal.

Ms Chelenga has been away from her husband for 15 months now. She was arrested alongside Chelangat for a similar crime - undergoing FGM.

She did not inform her husband of 15 years of her decision to face the knife. Instead, she chose to run away from her matrimonial home to go through the process, planning to return after she had healed.

But Chelenga never returned home; she ended up as a State guest at Kilgoris Police Station and was subsequently arraigned and handed a three-year jail sentence.

To date, she says the pain she experienced was not worth her freedom and vows that she will not allow any of her daughters to be circumcised.

But that might depend on whether her daughters will be able to withstand the intense pressure from those who quietly undergo the rite. The same pressure that Chelenga succumbed to.

Married at 13 years, she never knew peace for the 15 years of her marriage.

“I was the talk of my village. Other married women gossiped about me. I avoided social gatherings because of the insults," she says.

Chelenga's husband now says he would have protected her if he had known the kind of pressure she was going through. He has since forgiven her, he says.

But he has to face their children every day to explain why their mother is in jail.

“They keep asking me why their mother is living away from home and in police custody,” he says.

Grace Sitienei, 65, is also a resident of the prison. She is serving three years for administering the cut on the two women for between Sh1,000 and Sh2,000.

Ms Sitienei cannot speak Kiswahili but through an interpreter, she says she grew up believing that FGM made a girl pure. Her five daughters have all undergone the cut.

There are at least 20 women at Kisii Women's Prison, jailed for FGM-related cases. They have one common message: We have learnt our lesson; release us so we can take the message to our daughters.

“I am ready to talk to mothers and young girls to end this custom,” says Sitienei.