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The solid vow: We will not subject our daughters to FGM, survivors promise

 Ustada Ralia Sane female religious scholar, Sadia Hussein executive director Brighter Society Initiative and Makkah Abdula Delta girls initiative chairlady. [Wilberforce Okwiri, Standard]

At the age ten, Sadia Hussein was excited about undergoing Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). She was tired of being mocked by her peers, who claimed she was ‘unclean’. 

But the experience left her traumatised. 

Her mother who courageously escorted her to the bush could not stand seeing her in pain -- she fled, leaving her in the hands of traditional mutilators. 

"I was told I was ‘unclean’, having not been mutilated, but when I went to the bush, there was no water, and the entire process was brutal,” recalls Sadia.

The real pain was during the delivery of her firstborn child.

Three days to her delivery, her mother bought razor blades in preparation for a home birth. Sadia pleaded with her mother to take her to hospital but her mother ignored her.  

“My mother said a home delivery was better because in hospital, I would be wheeled straight to a theatre for a C-Section,” narrates Sadia. 

During the birth, she experienced prolonged labour and excessive bleeding that left her unconscious for about six hours. 

The profuse bleeding was as a result of the cutting of a scar caused by FGM to permit delivery. 

As she cuddled her firstborn, with tears in her eyes, she vowed to the baby, in a whisper, never to let her nor any other girl undergo FGM. 

Her mother heard her and accused her of being a coward, saying the pain is endured by all women in the community. 

Her words didn’t shake Sadia. She was determined to stop FGM at all costs. 

“As I struggled between life and death during delivery, I told God that if I survived, I would make sure no other girl is mutilated. 

"Young girls are told it is okay to feel pain at birth. Death at birth has also been normalised. They say it is God’s will,” observes the anti-FGM ambassador. 

She adds, “My mother was voiceless and could not protect me. To her, the pain was normal, but as for me this has to stop.” 

In her commitment to end FGM, Sadia established Brighter Society Initiative in Tana River County, to empower survivors of FGM against vice, child marriage and sexual and gender-based violence. 

In the community, FGM is a precursor to child marriage, with a majority of girls dropping out of school. 

“We try to cut the chain of FGM, the older generation passing harmful practises to the younger generation,” explains the founder and executive director of Brighter Society Initiative. 

Sadia goes village to village sensitising survivors about their rights. 

Survivors are also empowered economically, by having them establish income-generating activities. 

“You cannot challenge a man who provides everything. Making informed decisions means being empowered in terms of knowledge and finances, to address existing gaps,” adds Sadia. 

Additionally, the initiative conducts mentorship programmes for girls in schools. 

The school programme is aimed at laying a strong foundation for a generation to be free of gender-based violence. 

During mentorship, girls are encouraged to pursue their education and avoid early marriages and FGM.

The mentorship programme also delinks FGM from the Islamic religion, which the community hides in to mutilate girls. 

Sadia recalls rescuing a six-year-old from mutilation. But after her parents left for the market, she was grabbed by an elderly woman who dragged her to the bush, mutilated her then brought her back home. 

When Sadia pushed for justice for the girl, she pleaded with her to stop as the perpetrators were elderly and it would be disrespectful to bring a case against them. 

The girl dropped out of school and was married off at the age of ten. 

The perpetrators alleged that the act was linked to Islamic teachings. 

The girl’s encounter pushed Sadia to engage religious scholars to delink FGM from religion. 

Abdullahi Haji Gado, the chairman of the Council of Imams and Preachers of Kenya, Tana River, says Quran doesn’t dictate that women should undergo FGM.

FGM, he says, is a fabricated 'hadithi' by a weaker prophet believed to have said a woman should be cut, but ironically, the said prophet did not cut his wife or his children. 

“I teach from the Quran, but it doesn’t glorify FGM. It is wrong for individuals to use Islam to harm our girls. Some communities are pushing their traditions and this should not be allowed,” says Sheikh Gado, who uses the mosque to educate men on the dangers of the vice. 

The Standard team catches up with Ralia Ahmed, a female scholar (Muslim teacher) at Sane Girls High School, who is on a mission to end FGM. 

She gives talks on health risks associated with FGM and delinks Islam from the vice. 

“I was mutated at 12 years, but up to date I am yet to get a tangible reason why it had to happen,” narrates the survivor, who got married at 15. 

Saidia’s initiative has reached out to 500 survivors and is targeting at least 1,000 survivors in Tana River County. 

Makkah Abdula, 24, the proprietor of Delta Girl Initiative is among the beneficiaries of a survivor empowerment programme undertaken by Brighter Society Initiative. 

Delta Girl Initiative sensitises girls and women about their rights.

“Girls must understand their rights as a tool to avoid being manipulated, or harmed,” says Abdula, who was mutilated at the age of eight.

Her role in ending FGM began in 2020.

“It has not been easy fighting FGM because the elderly accuse me of causing our culture to fade away and shaking marriages, but I will not sleep until I see girls enjoy their rights and have FGM eliminated,” she says. 

Jackson Onyando, Child Protection Specialist in charge of FGM and Harmful practices at Unicef Kenya, says that working with survivor-led movements and religious leaders has strengthened the fight against FGM in Kenya. 

For example, in Tana River County, the use of survivors and religious leaders has seen four villages - Gafuru, Wata Wamara, Dilisa and G-High, declared FGM-free. 

FGM prevalence in Tana River County has also dropped to 30 per cent. 

“It is important to have survivors at the forefront in prevention and responding to FGM as it is the wearer of the shoe who knows where it pinches most,” says Onyando. 

Onyando adds, “There is power when women and girls' voices are heard because they are survivors and the ones subjected to the vice. 

Use of local organisations, according to the officials, is also key, as they easily carry out programmes that enhance the fight against FGM, reaching all key stakeholders. 

Unicef has been funding grassroots organisations led by women survivors from 2022 to help end FGM. 

“We are seeing a lot of voices coming up in Tana River. A lot of young girls are coming out to speak against the vice, even among communities that were previously patriarchal where women did not have a voice,” says Onyando.

Though the number of cases has significantly reduced, some people in the communities still hide under the Islamic religion. 

“There is a clear delineation between religion and culture in Tana River,” says the specialist.  

Despite Kenya having made progress in the fight against FGM, some counties in northern Kenya; Mandera, Garissa, Wajir and Marsabit have not made any progress. 

At least between 94 and 98 per cent of girls in the counties are mutated, against 15 per cent nationally. 

Onyando says medicalisation is also a hitch in the fight against the vice. 

Data shows women aged between 30 and 35 are being mutilated, more so in Kisii. 

Almost 70 per cent of cases in Kisii are performed either by a nurse, clinical officer or doctor. 

It is, however, yet to be established whether the practice in the demographic is by choice, or when giving birth. 

“It is discouraging to have medicalisation because it is against the ethical protocol of health workers," Onyando says.  

He adds that communities should know FGM is a vice whether it is performed by a medical practitioner or a traditional attendant.  

"It is still a violation of the rights of a girl and is also GBV to women,” says Onyando who is optimistic about ending FGM. 

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