Women's Issues

Redempta Wekesa On The Ills Of Female Genital Mutilation FGM

Ever wondered what is Female Genital Mutilation (or FGM), why is Female Genital Mutilation FGM practiced and who are its victims? We hope that this article provides  answers to some of your questions.

As a way to give back, Women Are Core (a DUNIA Magazine initiative) organizes an annual Run/Walk to raise awareness about issues that women face, with an emphasis on women of African descent. Every year we choose a different country (or cause) and focus on the lives, stories and needs of the women and how these women can be helped. We started in 2013 with the Atlanta Walk for Congo; 2014 was the year for South Sudan women.

Earlier this year, the vote was cast by the organization and we decided — Kenya in 2015! Female Genital Mutilation was immediately brought to our attention.

As we dug deeper, speaking with Kenyan women here in the USA and on the ground in Kenya, what we have learned about Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and its effects has been very concerning to say the least and quite painful to take in.

FGM Kenya
Girl from Pokot tribe, Kenya after undergoing FGM. Reuters/Siegfried Modola Photo, 2014

Putting a Face to the Practice of Female Genital Mutilation

We were introduced to Ms Redempta Wekesa by her niece who lives in New York. Redempta Wekesa, a Social Worker and mother of 6 (4 boys and 2 girls), works with the Kesis Wambete Female Genital Mutilation Rescue Centre in Kitale, Kenya. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Counseling Psychology and a Diploma in Guidance and Counseling, and in Social Development.

I had an opportunity to speak with Ms Wekesa not too long ago. I found her to be very knowledgeable, dedicated and committed to her work.

Being African myself, I understand that we do not share intimate information about ourselves easily, however, Ms Wekesa was willing to “go there” in sharing what it feels like to be a survivor of Female Genital Mutilation both physically and psychologically.

Like most of our women, she is strong and confident. “I was the first girl in our family and village to join a national school. I am a resilient woman and a survivor of FGM and this is the reason why I am involved in charitable work,” she said.

Born in September of 1956 into a polygamous family, Ms Wekesa is the 5th of 11 children by her mother. “I have a total of 45 brothers and sisters from my 5 mothers. In the Sabaot culture we do not have step mothers, brothers or sisters; they are mothers, brothers and sisters. In 1969 I underwent FGM as a rite of passage [into womanhood] while in primary school and it was through God’s grace that I survived to be what I am today. The pain of violating a female’s rights by removing part of her very important sexual organs is one of the main reasons why I and some of the survivors saw the need to work as activists against FGM.”

During our discussion, I asked how she is today affected by the circumcision she underwent at age 13. She replied, “I feel bad. The only thing I can do now is laugh it off.”

She explained that pro myths surrounding FGM in communities where it is practiced mislead, threaten and even force girls into undergoing FGM without understanding its negative effects and consequences.

Some of the myths include, “you will not give birth if you are not circumcised”, “you will not be blessed by ancestors and clan members if you are not circumcised”, etc — leading girls to believe FGM is the right (and only) option.

Hear from Ms Redempta Wekesa first hand…

Female Genital Mutilation interview

What is Female Genital Mutilation in layman’s terms? Why and where is it most practiced in Kenya?

Female genital mutilation (circumcision) is the removal of the female clitoris to inhibit a woman’s sexual feelings.

Among the Sabaots of Mt. Elgon this was done to reduce the woman’s sexual appetite, because they are a pastoralist community and men would leave home for long periods of time. It is also performed on girls between the ages of 14 and 16 years before her first sexual intercourse. If [in the old days] it was discovered that her virginity has been lost, the girl would be speared to death for humiliating her family. It was a taboo to cry when being circumcised and one would be married off to an older man.

Other pastoralist communities in Kenya that perform FGM include the Samburu’s and Meru’s of North Eastern Kenya; Maasais of South Rift; Marakwets, Keiyos and Pokots of North Rift; Kurias and Kissiis of Nyanza; and the Sabaots of Mt. Elgon.

What are some physical and psychological effects of this practice on women and girls?

The pain caused by ‘the cut’ causes trauma among the survivors that is difficult to deal with. Being cut leads to early marriages and unwanted pregnancies. Teenage mother may experience complications during pregnancy and child birth leading to death. The unwanted pregnancies may lead to rejection of the new born and low self-esteem in the teenage mother.

Social effects include high levels of school drop outs among the girls, high levels of illiteracy, hence a vicious cycle of poverty. Many girls have lost their lives due to excessive bleeding and some have become infertile due to infections of the wound during seclusion.

The sufferings of a mutilated girl and mother include: Lack of sexual appetite, victims are left with a permanent scar that causes pain during sex. Young girls are forced into early parenthood before they are fully developed enough to carry the baby and breastfeed. Once married, she works like a donkey from very early in the morning to carry out household chores, works on the farm, nurses the family in case of sickness and lives in complete poverty. She does not own any property because she brought nothing to her matrimonial home, her children are all but the property of the husband.

The husband can marry as many wives as he wishes and she has no say because she depends on the man completely. She cooks using firewood and the smoke makes her develop red eye, increasing her chances of eventually becoming blind. She uses a kerosene lamp to light her house at night, which makes her children unable to do their homework.

I remember in primary school when I was using the tin kerosene lamp to study and my mother slapped me for using the lamp because she needed it in the kitchen. She said, “why didn’t you do what you are doing (studying) while in school?” To her, there was nothing like doing homework.

Empowering the girl child and women on the ills of FGM will enable them to live fulfilled lives as God’s creatures.

What are some reasons why FGM is a difficult practice to curb in communities where it is most common?

It’s a cultural value which is difficult to change immediately. The perpetrators argue that it makes wives loyal to their husbands and discourages prostitution by reducing sexual appetite. The virtue of confidentiality is instilled [in girls] during the seclusion period. Girls are told secrets and warned never to reveal them to anybody including their husbands, no matter how happy he may make her feel.

Most individuals who are anti – FGM lack support and motivation. There’s also a lack of adequate funds to sensitize the council of elders, opinion leaders, the young girls, boys and their mothers against FGM. There aren’t enough rescue centers and safe homes for those who say ‘no to FGM’. Role models are few and lack political good will from the local leaders. It’s a source of income for the circumcisers (traditional female surgeons). Female circumcision is held dearly as a cultural heritage.

Traditional norms and values take long to change; it’s a process that requires a lot of time, human resources and financial resource.

It’s also increasingly performed in secrecy. Advanced methods of FGM are used nowadays by medical personnel when girls are between 5 – 10 years old.

What are some important headways that have been made in curbing Female Genital Mutilation recently?

The current constitution under the Bill of Rights criminalizes FGM in Kenya. FGM perpetrators are arrested and charged in court together with the parents of the victims. The government supports partnerships with Non–Governmental Organizations (both international and local), Faith Based Organizations (Christians and Muslims) to carry out anti FGM campaigns and advocacy. There’s also easier issuance of registration certificates for Community Based Organizations which champion anti FGM campaigns.

The government through the Ministry Of Education gives a second chance to FGM survivors who dropped out of school due to FGM to continue with their education.

What more needs to be done?

Aggressive behavior changes and campaigns. Peer education in all settings to help sensitize communities on the negative effects of FGM especially in schools and churches. Local communities need their own own resource persons to help fight FGM i.e. council of elders and opinion leaders. Also needed is support for victims and for existing initiatives. There’s a need for more rescue centers and safe homes, and skills training for alternative source of income for perpetrators and survivors. There is a need to set a revolving education fund to reward girls and women who say ‘no to FGM’.

Your thoughts in closing?

FGM is a cultural value and norm that no longer serves the purpose for which it was intended; there are alternative rites of passage [into womanhood] without a “cut”. My native Sabaot community which continues with FGM as a cultural norm is lagging behind in the modern world and lives in apt poverty and other social ills. It is our hope therefore that if partners to support the anti–FGM initiative are found, positive changes in the lives of survivors will be an example and a step toward building a team to carry on the advocacy and create a community free of mutilated girls who enjoy their sexual and reproductive health fully.

Thus concluded our interview.

According to UNICEFF,  more than 130 million girls and women alive today have been cut in the 29 countries in Africa and the Middle East where Female Genital Mutilation/Circumcision (FGM/C) is concentrated. If current trends continue, as many as 30 million girls are at risk of being cut before their 15th birthday in the next few years.

VIEW Photos | In 2014, a Reuters Photographer gained rare access into a FGM ceremony among the Pakot Tribe of  Kenya

We salute the courage of women like Redempta working tirelessly to right social ills in their communities. Our respects also go out to those who stand for the rights of the most vulnerable – women and children – everywhere.

It is my belief that as long as such crippling practices as Female Genital Mutilation, rape and other forms of violence against women continue in our communities, hopes for a progressive and advanced Africa will only remain an elusive dream.

By getting involved today and speaking out for the ones who need us most – women and girls – we are indeed setting the stage for an Africa our children (especially our daughters) will be most proud of.

Women and girls are not commodities, they are human beings. Societal norms and cultural practices that oppress women and girls, thus holding them back, have the unfavorable domino effect of pulling back nations and continents.

Now that we ourselves know better, we can all get involved in educating and sensitizing our communities.

Help make a difference.

Join us in Atlanta on September 19, 2015 for a 3K Run/Walk to help raise awareness about Female Genital Mutilation in Kenya. Website: www.womenarecore.org. For updates as they become available, LIKE A Million Strong For The Afrikan Woman on Facebook, TWITTER: @Women Are Core.

Lema is on Twitter: @LemaNsah


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