A few minutes after the baby was born, the midwife handed it to its waiting grandmother with a reproaching look. And with that the fate of the baby, who had not yet been named, was sealed.
There were whispers in the village that the baby was given an overdose of kumbao (raw tobacco). A few hours after the birth, the baby was no more. The relatives heaved a collective sigh of relief. Though sad, they had done what customs dictated and now they would not be treated as pariahs.
At the mat where she had given birth, the 13-year-old girl developed complications. A few hours later, she too died from excessive bleeding and other complications. And like her baby, she was condemned to an unmarked grave in Oldonyiro village, Isiolo County.
There was not a dry eye in the room by the time the teenage mother’s village mate, Sarah Mpipi Lolngojine, finished chronicling the tragedy that had hit the girl from Oldonyiro. The young mother had been betrothed to a moran and given some beads.
“Her only crime was to get pregnant before she had been initiated into womanhood. Her family could not stand living with the shame of an uninitiated daughter who had given birth out of wedlock. That is why they killed her baby and let the young mother die,” Sarah told a hushed audience at Isiolo Catholic Church hall. The listeners were outraged. Sarah had given the anecdote, which had taken place in January, with the hope that anti-Female Genital Mutilation crusaders could visit her village.
“Last December, all the girls who were eligible in my village were circumcised. Their mothers organised this and were very hostile to anybody who was opposed to it. They argued that if their daughters were not cut, they would not find husbands,” she told the women assembled in the hall.
Sarah comes from a community where 86 per cent of all the girls are circumcised and married off as soon they reach the age of nine and by 13, they are already mothers.
The situation in Samburu was summed up by a police officer based at a barrier along the Isiolo-Marsabit highway who when asked his view on FGM remarked, “How can you end FGM? In Wamba where I come from, all the girls who are seven years and above have been initiated. May be this campaign is meant for those who are not yet born.”
Sarah’s bombshell caused Gender and Youth Affairs Chief Administrative Secretary Rachel Shebesh to hit the roof: “Some people are breaking the law and instead of arresting them and making them pay we are asking for handouts.”
She warned mothers and chiefs that they would be charged with murder if somebody died as a result of FGM under their watch.
“It is the mothers who are the biggest violators of the law. They are the ones who perform the cut, not men. If they refused to undertake FGM, the men cannot carry out the operations. That is why we have called you here so that we can tell you what the law says before we start arresting you.”
This is the sign the organisations involved in the fight against FGM have been waiting for. “There has been no political will to end FGM. Political leaders feared they would lose votes if they spoke ill of FGM. But now the tide has changed. President Uhuru Kenyatta has given a commitment to end FGM by 2022,” Shebesh said.
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) representative in Kenya, Ademola Olajide, said the tide has started to turn and the dream of ending FGM by 2022 was now valid following Uhuru’s commitment.
Olajide said it is now time to do away with harmful cultures and involve the youth in the fight against FGM.
“We have the law and the political goodwill. This has been the missing link. Now the future of young girls can be safeguarded against harmful practices disguised as culture. The youth too have joined the fight,” he said.
He pledged that the UNFPA will facilitate the various actors to ensure the vulnerable girls from the 22 counties which are FGM hotpots are protected.
Although it is nine years since the anti-FGM law was passed, outlawing the cultural practice and spelling out the penalties to be meted out to violators, there has been little success in combating the vice in 22 counties.
It is against this backdrop that the government, in partnership with UNFPA, the Anti-FGM Board and other partners, has launched a multifaceted campaign to ensure the female cut is eliminated by 2022. While Shebesh was reading the riot act to mothers and uncooperative government officials in Isiolo, Marsabit County Commissioner Evans Achoke was taking 171 chiefs and their assistants through the anti-FGM law.
Anti-FGM Board Chairperson Agnes Pareiyo said she has already toured eight counties, including Kajiado, Isiolo, Samburu, Meru, Embu and Migori.
Pareiyo said Kenya has sealed all the escape routes for FGM perpetrators after signing an agreement with Tanzania, Ethiopia, Uganda and Somalia to stop cross-border FGM.
“We have a big responsibility to make sure this law is enforced. You must use your office to save the girls. Here in Marsabit, this vice is curried out in great secrecy but it must come to an end,” Pareiyo said.
Achoke told the chiefs that he was going to sack those who conspired with circumcisers and parents to break the law. So far, he said, four chiefs had been suspended and warned that this would continue until all girls were safe.