By Faiza Mohamed
For Kenyan girls in the Pokot region of Western Kenya, the August and December school holidays are particularly dangerous, as these are when mass female genital mutilation and child marriages are most likely to take place.
Despite the existence of Kenyan laws against FGM and child marriage, it is clear that they are not being implemented in the region to protect girls, some of whom have stayed in school over the holiday period, fearing what might happen should they return to their families – or have run away from home.
Elizabeth from Churo village was barred from attending school by her parents who planned to subject her to FGM and marry her off. She walked for three days before arriving at a rescue centre for girls. Her father came to the centre and tried to force her back home, but when the centre’s management threatened him with police action, he left and did not return.
Alsine from Tangulbei village was pulled out of school by her parents at age 14 and subjected to FGM to ‘prepare her for marriage’. She ran away to her older sister’s home, but her father forcibly removed her from her sister’s home and began marriage preparations. She managed to escape once more, and after spending two nights sleeping outdoors, was directed to a rescue centre for girls where she is once again attending school.
Although Kenya has laws banning FGM and child marriage, Equality Now partner, Women Rights Institute for Peace (WRIP), has informed us that government officials in the Pokot region where Alsine and Elizabeth are from, have done little to prevent violations or protect and support girls when they seek refuge.
Cana Rescue Home, which aided both Alsine and Elizabeth, is one of the few rescue centres in the region. Unfortunately it does not have the capacity or resources to house and educate all the girls who are seeking refuge, nor the ability to indefinitely shelter these girls. NGO rescue centres, while providing an essential service, are not a permanent solution as girls need to grow up within their families and communities.
In Kenya, prevalence rates for FGM and child marriage are approximately 27% and 26%, respectively, but there are significant regional variations with rates as high as 98% in certain regions. FGM is generally performed on girls aged between 12 and 18, but recent studies have shown that girls are being cut as young as age seven.
In the Pokot region, over 50% of girls between the ages of 10 and 21 years have been subjected to FGM; local officials indicate that over 80% of girls either do not join school or drop out prematurely after undergoing FGM, as girls are often married off immediately after the procedure. The Pokot government needs to work within communities to protect and support girls and enforce laws to make sure violations are adequately addressed.
When governments do not fulfill their obligations by failing to prosecute clear violations against women and girls, not only women, but all of society loses out. A culture of impunity is enforced, where the rights of the individual are not taken seriously.
Meanwhile, three hundred kilometres south of Pokot, in Narok, an area which also has a high prevalence rate of FGM and child marriage, Equality Now partner, Tasaru Ntomonok Initiative (TNI), has developed a model that incorporates local government and law enforcement officials and chiefs from practicing villages, to strengthen support systems and facilitate enforcement of laws. The implementation of similar interventions by national and regional governments in the Pokot region and throughout Kenya would help to protect and support girls and ensure safe and healthy childhoods.
Reconciliation ceremonies are also organised by the Tasaru rescue centre, one of the institutions supported by Equality Now with funds from Comic Relief. These ceremonies are facilitated by local churches and village elders who are opposed to FGM. The entire village is invited to witness a girl’s safe return to her family. Recently, Sharon returned to her family after living at the Tasaru rescue centre for four years, having learned that her family was planning to subject her to FGM and early marriage. Such success stories are real life evidence that change is possible.
Please join Equality Now and Take Action by calling on the Kenyan government and local county governors to protect girls by enforcing FGM and child marriage laws.
Faiza Mohamed is Nairobi Director for Equality Now