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Coronavirus rules force girls at risk of FGM to leave centres

Readers Lounge By Amos Kareithi
At the height ot the coronavirus, most of the girls were unceremoniously released to rejoin their families without reconciliation (Photo: Shutterstock)

The teenage girl’s world came crashing down the day the patriarch died. Although Natasha’s life had been tough before, she had already made peace with her father, but the nightmare started all over again when the unthinkable happened at the beginning of July.

Natasha had been on the run for two years after bolting from home on learning that she was about to be handed over to a suitor, an old grandfather.

Her father’s anger was understandable for she had defied him. She had also demeaned the societal traditions and customs which dictated that she undergo female genital mutilation (FGM). Then her society would declare her ready to start her own family, although she was only 12 years old.

On March 15, her world turned upside down when President Uhuru Kenyatta ordered the closure of learning institutions. Natasha was forced out of Tarsaru rescue centre in Kajiado and driven into the unwelcome hands of her family.

Like hundreds of other vulnerable girls, she was forced to go home because Public Health regulations introduced new strict measures of social distancing making it impossible for various institutions and rescue centres to accommodate them.

“I have just received a call from our hotline. I have been informed that there is a girl at the gate who is demanding to be admitted into the centre,” Anti-FGM Board chairperson Agnes Pareiyo said, sadly.

According to the Anti-FGM Board chairperson, Natasha ran away from home in Narok after the death of her father. After the burial, her brothers insisted on marrying her off after she forcefully underwent the female cut.

“I do not know what to do. I cannot send her back home because her life is in danger. At the same time, I cannot readmit her to the rescue centre because she might infect some of the 45 girls who are already seeking refuge at Tarsaru,” Ms Pareiyo added.

The only option, she explained, was to subject the traumatised Natasha to a 14-day quarantine where she will be tested for Covid-19 before she can rejoin the other girls. Natasha’s dream of clearing primary education this year was shattered after the government decreed that 2020 was a lost year and that all the learners in primary and secondary schools will have to repeat.

At the height of the coronavirus pandemic, Pareiyo received a call she will never forget. This time, the person on the line was an Officer Commanding police station from Narok.

Defiled by her father

“The officer told me that a 13-year-old girl had been taken to his office after she was defiled by her father. The police officer was looking for a rescue centre for the victim.”

Pareiyo explained that she could not take the girl in before subjecting her to Covid-19 test and suggested that she be taken for a medical examination. The OCS, however, got impatient by what he perceived to be bureaucracy and sent the girl away.

“When I tried looking for the girl later, I could not trace her. The OCS simply told me that he had told her to go away since he could not accommodate her. The girl’s matter still haunts me to date,” she added.

The Anti-FGM board boss said there are thousands of girls who have to put up with their tormentors who not long ago had tried to force them to undergo the cut and were planning to marry them off.

“There are still people who view the girls in terms of how many cows and goats her dowry would yield. Some parents and relatives see girls as a currency to her exchange with sheep, blankets and tobacco. In return, the minors are transformed into wives and childbearing machines. This is wrong,” Pareiyo warned.

A report jointly prepaid by United Nations Children’s Education Fund (Unicef) and United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in April captured the plight of vulnerable girls.

It observed that where movement is restricted and people are confined, priority should be given to ensuring access to prevention, protection, and care services, and psychosocial support, especially in remote areas.

The report further observed that following the restriction of movement into and out of some counties to prevent spread of the pandemic, there was an increased risk of girls undergoing FGM.

Surveillance systems

“Closure of schools may also mean an earlier cutting season in some contexts. Supporting community-based women and youth groups in identifying girls at risk of female genital mutilation and other forms of GBV is important,” the report read in part.

It proposed that raising awareness about their increased vulnerability and marginalisation as a result of the pandemic was one way to adapt community-based surveillance systems in hot spots like Maasai, Samburu, Pokot, Marakwet, Isiolo, Embu and Migori.

The report also questioned whether women or girls shelters still exist in the age of Covid-19.

Pareiyo explained that the government does not run any rescue centres. This role has been left to activists and philanthropists, some who have at times preyed on the very children they are supposed to safeguard.

This explains why most of the girls were unceremoniously released to rejoin their families without reconciliation as has been the norm because they were “squatting“ in schools which also acted as informal rescue centres.

“With the outbreak of Covid-19, we forgot all other areas. It is time we reassess the needs of these girls before it is too late. They are under immense pressure from relatives who are keen to marry them off for Sh100, 000, seven cows, a bull, a ram and 30 blankets,” Pareiyo warned.

At the same time, Chief Administrative Secretary in the Ministry of Public Service, Youth and Gender, Rachael Shebesh, told Provincial Administration officers in Embu last week that regardless of Covid-19 “we must protect our girls so that they can make us proud tomorrow”.

She said the pandemic should not be used as an excuse to violate the rights of girls by forcing them to undergo retrogressive traditions that have been outlawed in modern society.

“President Uhuru Kenyatta has issued strict instruction to chiefs and their assistants. They must uphold the law by making sure that all those who perpetrate FGM, force young girls into marriage or expose them to early pregnancies are apprehended,” she said.

But to Shebesh, the most worrying trend is the ‘medicalisation” of FGM where some medical practitioners secretly perform the procedure on the girls, giving it some ‘level’ of legitimacy especially in the eyes of illiterate parents.

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