Early morning in Nyangoge Village in Kuria. As we pull over into the DC’s Office, we meet Selina Rioba, better known as Mama Selina. She is talking to a pack of girls perhaps in their teens, in hushed tones. The girls are submissively standing in front of her, some in skirts and blouses while others in tunic dresses, hands held at the back. They are shooting their eyes straight to her face as though she’s discharging the final strategy in a deadly battle. They ask a question or two periodically, to which she retorts with the boldness of a lioness. Soon, we get her attention and her meeting with the girls is interrupted momentarily. We settle to prattle with her briefly.
For over four years, Mama Selina had been deeply involved in Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) not only as a champion of the outdated cultural practice, but as a practitioner who did the cutting. During her tenure as an FGM practitioner, Selina had cut hundreds of girls from the length and breadth of Kuria community, including those residing across the border, in Tanzania. Mama Selina says the elders in her village indoctrinated her to believe that it’s her forefathers who initiated her into the act of FGM. They claimed it was a special calling given by ancestors only to a selected few, with the blessing of the relics of the past. They also said the repercussions of forsaking the will of the ancestors would be dire and deadly. So, with a fearful diligence, she performed her ‘duties’ in cutting the girls every November, during the FGM season, convinced she was doing the will of her forefathers and not wanting to fall in trouble with fate.
For every girl that Mama Selina cut, she was paid Ksh. 2,000 (roughly 20 USD). It was custom that she surrenders Ksh. 1,000 out of this to the Council of village elders and retains the other half as her compensation. During the high peak FGM seasons in Kuria, Mama Selina could perform the cut on as many as 150 young girls between ages 4-25 in a sitting. This explains the keen interest of the elders in FGM — they benefit financially from the enterprise.
As an old guard in her 70’s, Selina was a cultural gatekeeper who believed strongly that a girl is initiated into adulthood only through FGM as a rite of passage. She was of the opinion that once a girl is mutilated, then she is ready for marriage and there was no need wasting time and resources taking her to school. Thus, thousands of young girls barely entering teenage get married off as minors, without any regard to their education, growth or personal development. But Mama Selina was not alone in this belief system. Once the girls undergo the cut, their parents start negotiating for the pride-price with one suitor after another. In Selina’s community, therefore, girls are seen more as a source of wealth than as humans who deserve to be treated with dignity. In the Kuria community, FGM has effectively locked out women accounting for almost half of the total population from education, literacy and meaningful development.
When Mama Selina first met the team from ADRA Kenya and UNICEF Kenya during one of their community outreaches and learnt that the two organizations were jointly working to end FGM, she quickly spotted an enemy in them. She was utterly adamant about buying into the idea of fighting FGM. She thought these were enemies of culture, who were to be shunned and ejected from the community. Never in her entire life had she imagined anyone would stand opposed to such a ‘noble’ practice that ushered girls into maturity, during which they were equipped with ‘invaluable morals’ and while at it, earning the practitioners good money and the parents dowry. But with the lapse of time, persistent and consistent outreaches by ADRA Kenya and UNICEF Kenya, Mama Selina started softening her stance.
“Maybe they have a point,” she thought.
Mama Selina started attending ADRA Kenya’s workshops and sensitization trainings aimed at influencing community gatekeepers such as religious leaders, village elders, school teachers, FGM practitioners and other opinion leaders to join the campaign against FGM. With every session she attended, scales fell off her eyes and she started changing her attitude and perception around the practice of FGM. She grasped the varied adverse effects that FGM impulsively imposed on the girls including scarring cysts, abscesses, infertility, difficulties during child birth, pain during urination and menstruation, and increased susceptibility to infections among others. Selina was in disbelief. But it didn’t end there. With ADRA and UNICEF’s sustained anti-FGM interventions in Kuria, she personally considered the anxiety, physical pain, psychological trauma and depression that the girls go through, before, during and after FGM for a lifetime. She felt some strange pain surging through her. She had never considered it from this perspective before. She first felt cold and indifferent then strong-willed determined.
Sitting in one of those meetings by ADRA Kenya and UNICEF Kenya, Mama Selina knew it was done. This was the end of an era. She did not only decide to stop her practice of FGM, she was also ready to make sacrifices and take the consequences that came with it. Due to continued efforts by the two organizations, Selina alongside other former FGM practitioners, has undergone a complete turnaround. She is currently an anti-FGM crusader in her community. Her daily occupation revolves around mobilizing young girls and educating them on the negative effects of FGM. She teaches them how to negotiate with their parents and politely say not to the cut. She also uses her own home as a temporary rescue centre for girls at risk of FGM, a place she formerly utilized to execute the cutting.
Since she started collaborating with ADRA Kenya and UNICEF Kenya as an anti-FGM community champion, Mama Selina has reached out to over 800 girls with anti-FGM messages and rescued at least 200 girls from the FGM at her home. She says she regrets the years she ‘wasted’ hurting girls and impeding community development. She works with the police and local administration to give tip offs on possible FGM centres and execution dates. Additionally, she helps organize and execute Alternative Rites of Passage (ARP) for girls at risk. During these ARP events, the girls are given important moral and life teachings and then safely graduated into adulthood without any part fo their bodies being cut or mutilated. This way, the positive culture associated with FGM (teachings) is maintained while the harmful culture (mutilation) is shunned.
Mama Selina has also established a girls’ club for girls who have escaped FGM. The club brings girls together for psychosocial support and continuous learning. They also discuss how to recruit more members and pass the anti-FGM message in their community. Selina’s girls’ club currently has a membership of 30 girls and more are still being recruited. Asked about her source of income seeing she had stopped FGM, Selina retorts that she only does small-holder farming to feed her family, but she is more peaceful and happier than when she was in the practice.
“Back then, I cut so many girls and earned so much money as a result, but now I have nothing to show for it. Today I feel more fulfilled and accomplished because I’m making a positive difference in the lives of these girls” Selina recounts in hindsight.
However, Selina’s new occupation is not without challenges. The village elders, cultural stalwarts and gatekeepers had warned her to stop the anti-FGM campaign. She has even been threatened with death if she doesn’t go back to cutting. She says she would not retract regardless of the number of pleas and threats she receives. Hers is a new-found mission which is a source of self-fulfilment and through which she is making a difference in the society.
ADRA Kenya and UNICEF Kenya continue to concert efforts in Kuria and Kisii, South Western Kenya, to accelerate the abandonment of FGM and give girls a better chance at life.
Story by Ongala Maurice, Communication and Partnerships Specialist — ADRA Kenya