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Season of Plenty Brings Misery for Teenage Girls

07/14/10 12:00 AM
Category: General

As soon as the long rains begin, many walk hundreds of kilometers to rescue centre in bid to escape female ‘cut’.

Mrs Jane Lanoi, who campaigns against the ‘cut’, displays a tool used to circumcise girls.

Fifteen-year-old, Elizabeth Loengetunya dreads the long rains season.

Although residents of East Pokot revere it as a time of plenty, the Standard Six pupil at Choru Primary School would rather the three-month period was scrapped from the calendar, or that the rains would incessantly fail.

It is a sentiment she shares with most of her age-mates, who during the long rains that normally fall in April, May and June are forced to undergo the age-old practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) to prepare them for marriage.

The season of plenty is also the time when schoolgirls as young as 10 get married off, some to men as old as their grand fathers.

“I would rather die than be circumcised. Once circumcised, a girl is forced to leave school and get married,” Elizabeth says bitterly.

Threatened

Two years ago, her mother fled from her matrimonial home when her husband threatened to kill her for resisting his plans to force Elizabeth, who was then 12, to undergo the cut and get married to a man he had already identified.

 

“My father almost killed my mother because she would not let him have his way... He had already negotiated and got part of the bride price,” she says.

 

They now share a small hut in Chepelo Village, provided by a sympathetic relative. They have no land and sell goat and camel milk to make ends meet.

“My father lives with my eldest brother and one of my sisters. I am afraid he might marry her off instead because she is already eight,” Elizabeth says.

Mini-exodus

In Nginya’ng, 100 kilometres from Chepelo, Reverend Christopher Chochoi of the Anglican Church also views the rainy season with foreboding.

The cleric and his wife, Nelly, run the Cana Rescue Centre, which was started in 2005 to shelter girls fleeing their homes because of FGM.

As the first of the grey rain clouds touch the hilltops in the East, a mini exodus of teenage girls begins, all on a journey towards Cana.

They walk hundreds of kilometres to get there, and even though they are aware that some will be turned away, the mere thought of what awaits them if they stay in their homes is enough to strengthen their resolve to get away.

From Loruk, where the tarmac road ends, it is an agonising one-hour drive through to Nginya’ng. When we get to the centre in Rev Chochoi’s compound, he is not at home but his wife shows us around.

“The long rains season is a time of absolute madness. We usually get hundreds of girls, some from as far as El Chamus, Laikipia and Samburu,” Mrs Chochoi says.

“They all want to be admitted to the centre, even though we have limited space. We are forced to turn most of them away after the circumcision period because we cannot afford to shelter them all.”

The centre currently houses 59 girls, 26 of whom are in secondary school. They are clothed, fed and their school fees paid.

Mrs Choichoi shows us a grass thatched hut, previously used as a kitchen, where the first girl was housed. “Her name was Antonine Chebet and she was in Class Seven. She walked 300 kilometres for two weeks to our home because she believed the reverend would save her. She told us that her father was forcing her to undergo the cut then get married to an old man.”

Antonine opened the floodgates and more girls started pouring into the couple’s home.

“When they heard that the reverend’s home was open to girls fleeing the cut, they came in droves. In 2005, with the help of a missionary society in America, we built the first hostel for the girls and admitted 10 of them as full-time boarders.”

Mrs Chochoi says the Pokot view girls as a source of wealth and marry them off as soon as they start to develop breasts.

“For the girls, this centre is a source of hope. My prayer is that as many of them as possible are opened in future so that our girls can study in peace,” she says.

Currently, the Jomo Kenyatta Foundation is supporting five girls in various schools, including Loreto High School, Limuru, and Moi Girls High School, Eldoret.

Community leaders are also being targeted in the fight to help girls.

The Churo Division education officer, Ms Joyce Kamain, says that her office has started an education programme for community leaders, to enlighten them on the negative effects of FGM.

“Most of our girls go to school only up to Standard Four because of FGM and forced early marriages. To reverse this trend, we need to teach our people that there is a productive life for girls beyond marriage,” she says.

Stem the tide

Organisations such as ActionAid Kenya have also stepped in to stem the tide of the destructive practice.

The non-governmental organisation is in the process of building boarding facilities in primary and secondary schools in the area to double up as shelters for girls escaping the cut.

“We are beginning to see some change. In the last three years, enrolment for girls has shot up by 200 per cent. About 20 per cent of the girls in East Pokot do not undergo the rite nowadays. Our aim now is to reach out to the remaining 80 per cent,” says ActionAid vice-chairman Hala Ikedido.

He adds that only education will save the community from the stranglehold of the cut.

Area MP Asman Kamama, who is also the Higher Education assistant minister, recently gave Sh1.3 million from the Constituency Development Fund kitty to primary and secondary schools in the area to boost education standards.

Mr Kamama says that FGM is “persistent” among the Pokot and eradicating it will be a “herculean task”.

“We are fighting the practice through the help of churches and community organisations,” he says.