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'I used to cut the girls, sometimes I would cut the wrong part and they would bleed terribly'

Women in Kenya are fighting back against FGM, child marriage and gender-based violence.
Jul 21st 2019, 9:01 PM 112,754 20

Órla Ryan reports from Kenya

IMG_2978 Suli Gedi Jelle, a former circumciser Source: Órla Ryan

I AM THE one who used to cut the girls … Sometimes I would cut the wrong part of the vagina and the girls would bleed terribly. But because I was poor and I was getting an income for my family, I could not stop.

In a recent conversation with TheJournal.ie, Suli Gedi Jelle recalled the years she spent circumcising girls in Kenya. Suli is one of many former cutters, as they are known, who have turned their back on the practice and are now working to eradicate female genital mutilation. 

At least 200 million girls and women in 30 countries worldwide have undergone FGM

The practice involves the ritual cutting or removal of some or all of the clitoris and the labia for non-medical reasons. The practice – also known as cutting – is most common in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, and is carried out due to cultural traditions.

In Kenya, about one in every five females aged 15-49 have been cut, according to the United Nations (almost half the number recorded in 1998) . However, the prevalence varies widely in different regions. In Somali communities, for example, the figure skyrockets to over 90%. 

kenya 28 fgm stats Source: 28TooMany

Almost every female in Garissa County has undergone FGM. In a 2017 study conducted by Unicef in Garissa and nearby Wajir, 96% of the Somali girls and women had undergone FGM.

Both areas are located close to the Kenya-Somalia border. The age at which females are cut varies from immediately after birth to adulthood. Some women are cut without their knowledge or consent during childbirth.

Girls in Garissa are generally cut when they are aged between six and nine years old. Most are then married off to much older men, often for financial reasons. As a result, many become pregnant at a very young age and drop out of school – continuing a cycle of poverty.

Kenya outlawed FGM in 2011. A person convicted of causing death by performing FGM could be sentenced to life in prison and fined 200,000 Kenyan shillings/KSh (about €1,740). However, prosecutions are rare. The legislation, which also bans cross-border FGM, was welcomed both nationally and internationally.

IMG_2929 Knives, razor bales and a sewing needle previously used to cut girls. Source: Órla Ryan

However, it also resulted in the practice being driven underground. A minority of doctors still carry out FGM – with some even campaigning for it to be made legal once more. However, the practice is generally carried out by traditional cutters who use unsterilised razor blades and knives.

There is a spike in cutting during school holidays in April, August and December – with some girls being taken across the border into countries such as Tanzania, Somalia and Uganda.

The girls and women are usually cut without any form of anaesthesia. They bleed excessively and many suffer from infections and complications – sometimes fatal. Herbs are often placed inside the female’s genitals in a bid to ‘seal’ the cut, which may also be sewn with a needle and thread. Many of those who are cut suffer from lifelong complications – both physical and mental.

Individuals and organisations across Kenya are working to completely eradicate FGM. TheJournal.ie recently travelled to Garissa to interview people who are working on the frontline. ActionAid Kenya is collaborating with grassroots campaigners to end FGM and support females who have already been cut.

IMG_2903 Maka Kassim, chairperson of the Kamuthe Women's Network Source: Órla Ryan

Maka Kassim is the chairperson of the Kamuthe Women’s Network, which she helped establish in a bid to fight back against FGM, child marriage and other rights’ violations. The group was founded in 2013 and initially had just five members.

At first many of Maka’s family members rejected her, believing her stance on FGM was disrespectful to their deep-rooted culture. The wider community was also largely against the group’s work – Maka, a mother-of-six, and others were threatened and physically attacked.

“We have faced many challenges during the struggle against FGM. We have been threatened, we have been chased away, I have been caned. I was caned by a man who said we are misleading women. He asked why we were against FGM as it is a religious act – which it is not,” Maka tells TheJournal.ie.

IMG_3137 Source: Órla Ryan

The women’s network now has more than 70 members across several villages, as well as dozens of ‘male champions’ – men who support and promote their work. Members report any suspected cases of FGM or planned FGM.

“We take immediate steps, we go to the area, we talk to the women involved before they do it. If they agree that they will not cut the girl, then we monitor the situation. But if they don’t agree, we report the case to the police station,” Maka explains.

The network has stopped about 15 cases of planned FGM from happening in 2018 and 2019. 

IMG_3056 A page in the network's book documenting crimes Source: Órla Ryan

“If the girl has already been cut by the time we find out, we take her to the nearest hospital for a medical checkup and report the case to the nearest police station.” If the circumciser and the girl’s parents are arrested, the network follows up on the case in a bid to increase the likelihood of it going to court. 

The women’s network has also succeeded in stopping several arranged marriages from taking place. 

‘People used to look at girls like animals’

Most people in Kamuthe are Muslim and many believe that FGM must be carried out for religious reasons. Maka and others are working with religious leaders and local chiefs to teach people this view is incorrect and not in keeping with Islamic teachings.

“As the Somali community we believed that the practice had to be done as part of our religion, but this is not the case,” Maka explains. Some people also believe that females who are not cut are unclean, unfit for marriage, and will become promiscuous or engage in prostitution.

Many religious leaders in the area were not immediately in favour of working to end FGM and child marriage but, largely through conversations and training facilitated by ActionAid, gradually started to change their minds. Several leaders now preach about why FGM is dangerous and should be stopped.

IMG_3025 Local religious leaders, chiefs and Yusuf Abdi of ActionAid Kenya (second from left) Source: Órla Ryan

“Initially, when the women’s network and ActionAid came to us, we resisted because we thought they were trying to interfere with our religion. But after having conversations with them we realised that [FGM] was a part of our culture, not our religion, Islamic teaching does not say it must be done,” Sheikh Yussuf Mohamed Ahmed says.

One thing that Islamic teaching does promote is access to education – for both males and females. Girls getting cut and married at a young age is very common in the area – something that virtually always leads to them dropping out of school.

One of the biggest achievements from working with the women’s network is girls’ education. Initially, during the old days, people used to look at girls like animals – they never used to go to school.

“But because of the interaction we have had with the women’s network, we have realised that it is very important for both boys and girls to go to school,” the Sheikh tells us. 

‘Girls bleed and bleed and bleed’

Another group the women’s network want to include in the process are cutters – the women who carry out FGM. They too were slow to get on board, feeling as though their culture was being attacked due to the increasing influence of so-called Western values.

During our visit to Kamuthe, we meet two reformed circumcisers. One of the women, Suli Gedi Jelle, tells us that her late mother also worked as a cutter. When she was a child, Suli’s job was to chase after other girls and bring them to be cut. 

IMG_2980 Suli Gedi Jelle, a former circumciser Source: Órla Ryan

“I am the one who used to cut the girls. When I was younger I used to be a very fast runner so I would follow the girls and catch them and bring them to get cut.”

Suli says she grew up thinking the practice was a normal part of life. She was also “motivated by the money” and would buy sweets and earrings with the little amount she received. “When the girls were cut, their parents gave a small fee. It motivated me to be part of that process, to run after the girls, to get hold of them so they could be cut.”

When she was older Suli took over her mother’s work, using the same materials.

I had a lot of difficulties because I was not an expert so I faced a lot of challenges – sometimes I would cut the wrong part of the vagina and the girls would bleed terribly. But because I was poor and I was getting an income for my family, I could not stop.

Suli has seven children – four girls and three boys. When she was 12, she was kidnapped and married off to an older man. “I was 12 years old when I got married. I was taken while I was looking after camels. I was abducted by my future husband. I was beaten up that day. I was young and I didn’t want to get married. I was beaten up by him and this is my scar (she lifts up her dress and shows us a scar on her leg).” They are still married.

IMG_2834 Suli's scar Source: Órla Ryan

Suli’s eldest two daughters underwent FGM. “This happened before I had the information I have now about FGM. My youngest two daughters are not cut and won’t be,” she says. Suli was initially reluctant to engage with the women’s network, telling us: “I really fought the women’s network at first, I did not believe what they were saying, I totally refused to listen. I thought that my culture – what I believed – was right.”

“We underwent training from the women’s network and now we support their work. We submitted all the items that we used to use – the blades, local herbs. We had no eyes, it was like we were blind but, because of the training that we got and what we learned, I now have eyes. Lack of knowledge is what made us do that work.”

_MG_2968 Hilay Garad Hassan, a former circumciser Source: Órla Ryan

One of the women who helped train Suli as a cutter was Hilay Garad Hassan. She too is now a reformed circumciser. “I was 27 years old when I started to cut girls. I am 66 years old now. I cut for about 35 years. My mother was a cutter too, I learned from her.

“For the first few years, [cutting] was difficult for me, but later on it became a normal business. In this village, I was the expert, I was the main cutter. It was the main source of income for me and my family,” Hilay says. The normal rate to cut a girl is about 2,000 to 3,000 KSh (€17-26).

_MG_2926 Herbs are used to 'seal' the cut post-FGM Source: Órla Ryan

“It was very difficult for me [to see girls in pain] because girls usually bled a lot because of the knife and the needle and the razor blade we used. We used this (holding a bag of traditional herbs), put it inside the girl to stop the bleeding.

There were girls who really bled during the course of the cutting and some ended up in hospital because of the complications, because of the bleeding, because of the infections that they got. 

Did anyone die?

“One girl. That was in 1997. I really felt bad about that, I cried and cried. It really affected me psychologically, it really disturbed me.” Hilay becomes visibly upset at this point, telling us: “To this day when I remember that, I get emotional. I never wanted to speak about it again. I am guilty, but now I want to advocate against [FGM].”

Hilay is acutely aware of how difficult it can be to change a person’s lifelong beliefs. She was married off to an older man when she was just 13 years old. “I never went to school, I just stayed at home,” she recalls. She has eight children – four boys and four girls, telling us: “All of my girls have undergone the cut. They were married young, from the ages of 12 to 15.”

IMG_2955 Hilay Garad Hassan, a former circumciser Source: Órla Ryan

She too was reluctant to engage with the women’s network when they started to raise awareness about the negative implications of FGM – her livelihood. “Initially it was like they were coming to fight my culture, they were coming to fight my source of income, they were coming to fight my rights. We really fought with them, we said what they were doing was a westernised thing, like they were driving us away from our culture.

“But later on, after three or four years of having that conversation with them, I realised that we were wrong, I stopped cutting about three years ago. I surrendered all of the items I used.” Hilay says another woman in the village continues to cut but she is trying to convince her to stop.

IMG_3255 Local farmers trained by ActionAid Kenya Source: Órla Ryan

ActionAid works in Kenya and several other countries to end FGM. The charity raises awareness among both adults and children about the harmful side effects of the procedure, and lobbies governments to pass anti-FGM legislation.

The organisation also trains women, including reformed cutters, so they can develop new skills such as farming or weaving and provide for themselves and their families. It also trains police officers and members of the judiciary so they are better equipped to handle cases related to FGM, child marriage, and sexual and physical violence.

Cutting girls for a second time

Saadia Mohammed, another women’s network member, says the training received from Action Aid has taught people about the many negative implications of cutting. “FGM brings a lot of infections and a lot of sickness. The girls are even affected psychologically. And also, the bleeding – girls bleed and bleed and bleed, some of them are admitted to hospital.”

Another effect is having particularly difficult periods. Many girls miss school for days each month because of the pain they are in, and the fact they cannot afford sanitary products. Females who become pregnant often have challenges during delivery and need to undergo Caesarean section.

IMG_2914 People are encouraged to report FGM and child marriage via text message Source: Órla Ryan

Many girls and young women are cut for a second time – if their husband finds it difficult to have sex with them. Fatima Hassan, another member of the group, explains: “After a girl undergoes FGM, when she is married, she is normally cut again so that the man can penetrate her the whole way.”

The women’s network aims to stop FGM before it happens, intervening if they become aware of plans to cut a girl. Members rescue girls and sometimes take them into their own homes if they have nowhere else to go. The women try to keep the girls in school but many cannot afford to cover fees and buy books and a uniform.

“When these girls are rescued, the biggest challenge we face is educating them. We cannot support the girls’ education because of the school fees you have to pay in Kenya,” Fatima tells TheJournal.ie

During our visit, three girls sat outside the room. Two were due to be married to older men but the network intervened and rescued them. A third girl, aged 16, was at the time due to be married to a 50-year-old man.

“The two girls who are sitting outside this room right now, they were due to be married but we rescued them. We want to send them to secondary school so we requested support from members of parliament in terms of fees and they are now in school,” Fatima explains.

IMG_3162 Farmer Amina Hassam, who was trained by ActionAid Source: Órla Ryan

“There is a third girl who is sitting outside, she has finished her primary education, she could not continue with her secondary education so her dad is going to marry her off to an old man, 50 years of age. She is not ready to get married but her family is pushing for that.”

After our visit, we confirmed that the women’s network prevented the marriage from taking place. However, we were told the man in question is persistent and still wants it to go ahead.

Halima Yussuf, another network member, is looking after a girl who ran away from an early marriage. At 13, she herself was married off to a 45-year-old man. She gave birth to two children before she and her husband split up. She does not want other girls to go through what she did.

“If only I had been given the opportunity to go to school and know my rights, I would have not accepted being told to marry that man.” Halima later remarried, at 21. Her second husband is “very supportive” and agrees that all of their children should be educated.

“I underwent FGM and early marriage, I will not let that happen to my children. My firstborn is a daughter, who is now in college doing a nursing course, the others are all in school. 

“I have rescued a girl who ran away from an early marriage, she is staying in my house and I have brought her back to school.

I will make sure all my children, especially the girls, go to school. They are very passionate about education because I have told them my history. 

To highlight her point, Halima says she can’t even scroll through her phone to get a contact number without help. “I have given my children this example and told them not to be like that, don’t be like me.”

A €20 fine for rape

Members of the women’s network contact the police when they are aware of an incidence of FGM, or other crimes such as rape, gender-based violence and defilement. The network keeps a record book of all the crimes they encounter, using it to help victims get justice via the legal system. The network is against ‘mashla’ – an informal procedure used to resolve disputes locally rather than going to court.

IMG_3043 The women's network's ledger Source: Órla Ryan

Yusuf Abdi, an ActionAid Kenya regional coordinator who works with the network, explains further: “Rather than going through legal proceedings, there is a local dispute resolution mechanism. The elders come together, they sit and discuss and they resolve the issue at local level. They don’t follow legal procedures because they fear the accused person may be jailed for years. They believe this is not favourable to women as their husbands could be in jail for a long time.”

So, what kind of punishment might be handed down via mashla? Yusuf explains: 

In a case involving FGM, they normally slaughter one goat for the lady who has been cut just to give her some sort of energy, because she has lost a lot of blood. But that goat is not only taken by the lady, the meat is taken by the men and the elders who are also there.

If any animal is not slaughtered, the perpator of a crime may be fined. Yusuf says the average fine for raping someone is the equivalent of €20.

No transport, no justice

Many cases fail to make it to court because the victim simply cannot afford to travel to court. The government and organisations like ActionAid help cover some people’s legal fees and transportation costs, but demand far outstrips supply.

“Due to the number of cases being reported we are not able to support every case. Some cases – because the people who are affected are poor, poor women who have not gone to school and do not know the procedure they need to follow – are dropped,” Yusuf notes.

The Malakote community, an extremely poor and marginalised group in the area, is disproportionately affected in this regard. Local chief Juma Homa says that when you live in poverty, your main priority is getting food – and justice can seem impossible to pursue or achieve.

“Poverty is the biggest challenge this community is facing. It’s not like the Somalis, they are better off, they have some livestock, but my community has nothing, we are not pastoralists, we are not farmers. We used to be hunters and gatherers, go to the bush and kill wild animals and eat them, that’s how we survived,” Juma tells us. 

IMG_3310 Camel farming is common in Garissa Source: Órla Ryan

“Now you can’t go to the forest to kill an animal because you will be reported and the government will take action because they don’t want wild animals to be killed anymore. So we have no means of survival, our livelihood options are very minimal.

“If you’re reporting a crime, the only place you can go is the village elder. To report to the police you’d have to go to Bora, which is about 75km away (there is a closer police station but Yusuf explains that it doesn’t deal with more serious crimes such as sexual assault) – that requires transport, we don’t have transport.

The first priority is food and I don’t even have that. So we talk to the man who has raped or married the young girl or defiled that young girl to get something from him so that at least they can buy food for the girl’s family, and that’s the end of the case.

Bribery 

In a bid to remove barriers to justice, the Garissa County Gender Department successfully pushed to make a P3 form, which must be filled out by the police and a doctor following an assault, free. It previously cost 1,000 Ksh (about €8.60), making it too expensive for people who are struggling to buy food.

Director Ahmed Abdi tells TheJournal.ie that the department also tries to provide legal aid when it can, as well as transport costs for victims of crimes who need to travel to and from court. Abdi says very little legislation related to gender issues makes it before the government, in part due to the lack of female representation at every level of politics in Kenya.

Abdulhai Idle, the department’s deputy director, agrees. He also wants legislation brought forward to outlaw the practice of mashla. “If a case comes, you push for it to go to court. It could be sexual or gender-based violence or even defilement, a seven or eight-year-old girl defiled, and we’re told at the end of the day it is being dissolved at mashla level,” he explains, clearly upset.

IMG_3331 Ahmed Abdi and Abdulhai Idle of the Garissa County Gender Department Source: Órla Ryan

He is aware of cases involving serious crimes that have been thrown out of court due to bribery, saying people with money can “buy their way out”. He says seeing this happen, particularly in cases involving child sex abuse, is “very painful”.

Yusuf shares this frustration, noting that ActionAid works with the government to train the police and judiciary in a bid to stamp out such corruption. “Maybe the guy who defiled the girl is related to a rich family or a politician. So we’ll push from our end [for him to be prosecuted] but he could be released on bail. From the moment he is out, he is advocating for mashla. We are pushing for culprits in such cases to be remanded in custody until the case comes before the court.”

In the most recent budget, announced last month, the department’s annual funding was increased from 2 million Ksh (€17,300) to 3.5 million Ksh (€30,200). The men say this is still not enough money, but is a step in the right direction, adding that their colleagues are starting to take women’s and girls’ rights more seriously.

Ahmed says some colleagues “dismissively say ‘Oh, you just work in gender’, but now they are coming on side, catching up”. He says, in one way, it is good that men are running the gender department, stating: “If women were pushing for the same things we are, many people would not even listen to them.” Over time, he hopes this will change.

_MG_3092 Maka Kassim, chairperson of the Kamuthe Women's Network Source: Órla Ryan

Maka and the women’s network are among those fighting to ensure that women and girls will be taken seriously, and listened to, across all levels of society. Maka wants to become the area chief in Kamuthe, a role never held by a woman. She has unsuccessfully applied for the position three times but remains undeterred. One of her daughters is considering running to become a Member of the County Assembly in the 2022 general election.

Maka tells us that for far too long women had “no role in family decision-making” and “were denied the right to participate in public meetings” – something that is slowing changing.

“We have struggled for a long time, we have been threatened, we have been caned, but there is a saying, ‘Where there is a will, there is a way’. We have struggled but we are proud of ourselves, we have achieved a lot. Our aim is to achieve equality for women and girls, and we will keep working towards that.”

_MG_2839 Members of Kamuthe Women's Network Source: Órla Ryan

This article is the first of a three-part series supported by the Simon Cumbers Media Fund. Read the next installment tomorrow.

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