Whenever life presents us with difficult choices, there’s often a natural tendency to gravitate towards the easier option. In most cases, the easier option amounts to a creeping compromise of one’s standards. Not so with Mary Nchagwa, the 21-year-old girl from Ntimaru Sub-county, Kuria Kenya, who defied her society’s long-cherished tradition of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). All of Mary’s choices were tough, and she had no easier way out.
As a teenager, Mary had attended to completion, a series of Life Skills Workshops jointly conducted by ADRA Kenya and UNICEF Kenya at a local church. During these workshops, she had learnt critical life planning skills such as assertiveness, decision making and negotiation, among others. These skills later proved pivotal in her daily interactions with her family, peers and the society at large. But what would turn out to be her most important lesson was the ability to reject FGM, which she had witnessed her peers undergo, and which she had been conditioned in mind to accept for it was ‘good’ despite the apparent misgivings associated with it. Through ADRA Kenya and UNICEF Kenya, Mary had learnt that FGM or mutilation of any other part of the human body is unlawful and that as an adult, she had an express say on what happens to her body. She also learnt the pain and life-long health complications that women in her community silently go through after undergoing ‘the cut’, as they commonly refer to it.
She learnt from UNICEF Kenya and ADRA Kenya, that FGM was not a right of passage to adulthood as she had been conditioned to believe, but rather, that she became an adult legally after attaining the age of 18.
This was among the key reasons that led to her courageous stand against FGM. Mary then took the tough but necessary decision of refusing to undergo the cut. She said no to FGM by applying the set of life skills that she had learnt from the ADRA Kenya and UNICEF Kenya’s Workshops.
As expected, this decision came with some dire repercussions as going against such cultural traditions in her community was tantamount to ostracism or extermination depending on the gravity of the offence. As a result of her decision, Mary’s father disowned her and refused to pay her school fees. You could easily read anxiety, confusion and distress on Mary’s face. Had she taken this too far? Or were her parents simply being unreasonable? What if this marked the end of her education – a thought she so dreaded? But this was not to last. With the support of the church, UNICEF Kenya and ADRA Kenya’s Anti-FGM Project, Mary completed her Secondary School education and passed the exams.
But the struggle was far from over. During the FGM season of 2019, some of Mary’s relatives had silently organized for her to be ‘cut’ without her knowledge and consent. She had learnt this from a concerned relative who advised her to run for rescue at Komotobo Mission Centre, which, at the time, was serving as a temporary rescue centre for victims of Gender-based Violence (GBV) related cases. This she did and was safe.
Since she could not go back to her home in January 2020 after the FGM season for fear of exposing herself to the cultural gatekeepers, Mary opted to put up with one of the crusaders of FGM at Kehancha, a small town near the border of Kenya and Tanzania, some 25 kilometres from Migori town. While at Kehancha, Mary met the love of her life, Zachariah, a young anti-FGM crusader who had vowed only to get married to a girl who had not undergone FGM. All through their courtship, ADRA Kenya staff continued to communicate with Mary and Zachariah, giving them moral support and snippets of advice. Soon, they started contemplating marriage.
When the time was ripe to formalize their marriage through a wedding, Mary suffered another blow – her parents refused to take the bride price. She was incredibly tortured mentally and utterly devastated.
This is what it meant to be disowned by your very parents. To be ostracized from your own people. Nevertheless, one solemn thought afforded her peace even amid the devastation – she was sure she had made the right decision. Thankfully, the team from ADRA Kenya and UNICEF Kenya reached out to the Ministry of Interior for Migori County, the church, the Anti-FGM Board and opinion leaders to ensure that Mary and Zechariah’s wedding was successful. Today, the couple lives happily in Kehancha, dedicating their lives to educating and empowering younger girls to say no to harmful and retrogressive cultural practices such as FGM.
The story of Mary goes to exemplify the importance of empowering vulnerable girls with life skills to enable them to navigate prevalent socio-cultural challenges. As a brave and wise young girl, she chose ostracism over unlawful mutilation of her body. A towering role model, Mary has demonstrated to other girls and members of her community that it is possible to escape FGM and still become an adult, get married and live a purposeful and fulfilling life. A hero in Mary’s life is her husband, who has remained steadfast in supporting her throughout the journey, a testament to the critical role that men must play if the war against FGM is to be won.
ADRA Kenya and UNICEF Kenya continue to work with girls who are at risk of FGM, and their communities to end this inhumane and outlawed practice.
Story by Maurice Ongala, Behaviour Change Communication and Partnership Specialist