By Christabel Ligami
Margaret Lodomo is a 62-year-old, reformed circumciser from Karon, Kapenguria in the Rift Valley region of Kenya. Lodomo abandoned female circumcision many years ago due to the challenges that came with it after 30 years in the practice.
In Pokot, Kenya, female circumcision is a rite of passage, and it is believed that when girls are circumcised, they are mature enough for marriage.
During her practice, she witnessed many pregnant women struggling to give birth, resulting in more cutting to expand their birth canal to enable the child to come out.
Karon village is next to the border with Uganda. Since FGM is illegal in Kenya, many circumcisers travel to Uganda to do it as Uganda still practices FGM without legal recourse.
After the government banned it, Lodomo suggests the local administration became so harsh on them that they began secretly cutting, going undetected to homes where girls were grouped and cut together without attracting the attention of local administration officials.
Lodomo says that she quit the practice after a government doctor came to the village and talked to them about the problems surrounding the practice.
Circumcisers were also told it was illegal in Kenya and anyone found doing it could be jailed for years.
She was also fearful of the possibility of contracting HIV. “I know of a woman who was circumcising women and she got HIV after cutting her fingers and her wound was exposed to blood from one of the girls that had the virus.
She is now taking ARVs,” she said. Before this, she says she charged Kshs 500 per girl for the procedure and she used to remove the whole clitoris as per culture.
Kenya outlawed FGM partially in 2001 and completely banned it in 2011. According to the law, women found indulging in the practice can be jailed for up to nine years or fined USD 6,000 with Kenya’s President, Uhuru Kenyatta, pledging to end FGM in communities that practice it by 2022.
Lodomo joined other women who had abandoned the practice to educate others of its dangers and why they should abandon it.
The women travel all the way to Uganda to locate those still practicing and beseech them to stop the practice.
However, since circumcision was her only source of income, Lodomo has faced financial challenges because her primary source of income is gone. She now sells firewood and charcoal to sustain her family.
Mary Tolong’o, 65, from Nakuyen, Kapenguria, says she started circumcising girls in the year 2000 but stopped a few years later because some of the girls she circumcised bled excessively and had to be taken to hospital for treatment.
At least nine that she can remember were admitted in hospital because of excessive bleeding.
To perform the circumcision, she used a sharpened arrow tip before she shifted to razor blades.
Earlier on they used one instrument to cut all the girls at once. There was no cleaning or sanitizing and when she shifted to razor blades she used one per girl.
She said they would circumcise girls between 10 and 18 years because Pokot cultural practice dictates to circumcise girls when they hit teenage and are ready to be married off.
“I was taught how to do it by my mothers and grandmother as early as when I was 10. I’m now a Catholic Church member after dropping the work a few years ago.
I was arrested and stayed in prison for over one year and paid a heavy fine. This made me stop.”
Maria Kemchobos, 30, is a traditional midwife in Kapenguria. She says she saw firsthand the difficulties that came with giving birth for the circumcised women in Pokot.
During birth she was forced to extend the girls birth canal so they could give birth, with most circumcised women struggling to push out their babies. Some of the girls would die in the process, something that affected her.
Together with the other reformed female circumcisers, they agreed to build a centre here to teach women why they should not cut women.
She says as a midwife in the village she knew most of the female circumcisers. She started a campaign against the practice and started educating more people about the dangers of FGM with the other reformed circumcisers in the community.
In 2014 we formed a community-based organization called Komesi in Kapenguria. The group teaches people through workshops and seminars on the dangers of FGM and urge them to stop.
In collaboration with ActionAid, the women – now 35 in number – have bought a four-acre piece of land to build a centre for anti-FGM learning and education. Girls rescued from being forced to undergo FGM will also be housed at the centre.
“We were pushed to campaign against the practice following the death of four girls after botched circumcision in 2013 including a daughter of the circumciser,” she said.
Culturally in the Pokot community, a woman is not allowed to circumcise her own daughter, but according to Kemchobos, the circumciser was drunk and ended up cutting her daughter because she thought she hadn’t been cut well by another circumciser.
All the six girls, she said, bled to death because they were cut badly and not taken to the hospital.
Their mothers and circumciser were afraid that they would be arrested. “Our main target is the female circumcisers because if we convince them to abandon the act, we would not have anyone to cut our girls,” she noted.
Rimen Ali, 70 years, and a community elder, says FGM in West Pokot is a cultural practice that has been mandatory. It was impossible to marry a woman who was not circumcised.
Rimen said that in West Pokot, an uncircumcised woman is seen as a pariah (a community outcast) who is not supposed to participate in any communal activities.
If by chance she gets married, the mother-in-law would make sure she does not interact with her matrimonial family.
Other women will also never allow her to join in any activities. If a woman was known to have skipped circumcision she was seen as an outcast and no dowry was paid for her until she underwent it.
But with the education that has happened recently, people are beginning to change the way they see it.
She said after witnessing several girls die in the process of being cut over years, she personally has changed her mind and supports every effort towards the end of the practice.
“I help organizations like Komesi gather people to educate them against the practice. We can now see some progress.
Only a few women still do it in secret or across the borders,” Rimen said. “Now we see more girls going to school and joining universities. This was not the case years ago.”
West Pokot Governor John Lonyangapuo said the county bursary scheme has seen an increase in secondary school enrolment from 24,000 in 2017 to 50,000 in 2021 with more girls now joining high school.
This is as a result of the strong campaign against FGM in the county and countrywide.
The county assembly of West Pokot, he said, has a draft bill that will be subjected to public participation that will be aligned with the national laws and regulations to help root out the vice of FGM in the county.
According to a 2014 Kenya’s Demographic Survey, 21 percent of women in the country were circumcised compared to 27 percent in 2008 and 2009. While in 2003, 32 percent of the women were circumcised. Three communities, Kisi, Maasai and Samburu still have the highest number of FGM cases.
Fridah Chepkemoi, an anti FGM advocate and Head of Legal Transformers, a community-based organization in Rift Valley, Kenya, says that unless the Kenyan anti-FGM law is amended to put punitive fines, then those who are for the culture will never stop because they can always pay the fine and be freed.
To completely eradicate the culture of circumcising women, she said, it will require a lot of grassroots education on the dangers of FGM and a campaign to create awareness. This should involve both men and women.