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February 20, 2019

Brave Pokot women fight FGM and Early marriage, One skill at a time

A section of pokot young women undergoing skill training sponsors by Tangulbei Women Network in Tiaty, Baringo County. /JOSEPH KANGOGO
A section of pokot young women undergoing skill training sponsors by Tangulbei Women Network in Tiaty, Baringo County. /JOSEPH KANGOGO

We arrive at Tangulbei, Tiaty subcounty, Baringo county, at about 3pm. The place is calm, with people winding down for the day.

Old Pokot men dressed in the traditional striped sheets, vests and jungle green caps are relaxing and chatting under the seasonal acacia trees. From time to time they inhale their brown snuff.

Large herds of goats, sheep and cattle are grazing nearby. It is the rainy season and the pastoral communities have enough water and pasture.

Baringo is inhabited by the Tugen, Pokot and Ilchamus pastoral communities, whose livelihood depends largely on livestock.

Our driver stops outside a semi-modern structure where a group of 150 women barely in their 20s are holed up. The congested room is an upcoming vocational training centre.

Some of the women are learning how to operate sewing machines while others are learning about hair dressing; some wish they could attend driving school.

We are welcomed by Mary Kuket, the founder and chairperson of Tangulbei Women's Network. She is also the founder of the training centre.

Kuket says due to limited space the learners hold their lessons in shifts. The first group comes in at 6am and leaves at noon to give room to the next group.

"Don't worry, space in our office is too small but you can just squeeze yourselves in," Kuket tells us and directs her office assistant to pull some plastic chairs for the visitors.

She says the girls are lucky to be at the centre. "[The] majority of their mates have fallen victim to the outlawed female genital mutilation and married [off] at a tender age," Kuket says.

She says most of the girls are illiterate as they did not go to school while some dropped out in lower primary.

"Although a number of them managed to escape FGM, they became pregnant, but they [still] decided to join us to acquire skills and later become self-reliant," Kuket says.

She says the surrounding community does not value the lives and dignity of women and girls, something they hope will one day change.

"And for that single reason it prompted us to form the women's network so we can declare war on outdated cultural practices and better the lives of our children, especially the girls who seem totally neglected by the community."

When the trainees come over to greet us, one can't help but wish, looking at their bright beautiful faces, that they could have gotten an education and gone on to lead better lives like their agemates in other parts of the world.

"[It's] not because people in our community are so poor that they cannot afford to pay school fees for their children, but it is because of the deep-rooted attitude and culture where men still treat women as lesser human beings. To them they are just living objects only suitable for sex and child-bearing,” Kuket says.

Traditionally, Pokot girls between the ages of nine and 14 are pushed to undergo FGM and thereafter are married off to a man of her parent's choosing. The parents aim is to acquire wealth in the form of livestock.

The network comprises 85 women's groups with 2,550 members drawn from Tiaty East subcounty, the majority of them aged between 50 and 60.

"Just a few of us went to school. The rest cannot write their names or even spell or read a simple [sentence]. But our core mission, as we agreed on, is to come together, form the women's groups so that we can push our children to school to better their lives, after which families and the entire community will also change," Kuket says.

She urges the county leadership, including Governor Stanley Kiptis, Woman Representative Gladwell Cheruiyot and Senator Gideon Moi, to support women and girls.

Kuket criticises the leadership for failing to inject more resources into civic education to train the community on the dangers of FGM and other retrogressive practices.

She says for instance money from the Affirmative Action Fund could be channelled to deserving groups at the grassroots. She also suggests building more boarding schools to accommodate more children, especially girls, to keep them away from disturbances.

Reformed circumcisers

Kuket says Tangulbei Women's Network is committed to working closely with the government and local leaders to end FGM, banditry and cattle rustling.

Despite their meagre resources, they go around urging circumcisers to stop the practice. At least 30 have heeded their call and joined in the campaign.

Chebongendoi Lonene, 60, is one of the reformed circumcisers. She mutilated uncountable number of girls, but she says she has reformed and joined the church.

"I was one among the notorious Pokot women who valued and cashed in on the business of cutting girls. But the women's network one day approached me and convinced me so I dropped the outdated practice in 2013," Lonene says.

Apart from circumcising girls she had also mastered the art of piercing ears, tattooing and plaiting beads for the initiates. Parents would pay her with five litres of busaa or Sh500 per head.

"The venture was really bad," she says. Since she reformed she has concentrated on farming and her hotel business, which have helped her to comfortably educate her three children.

Lonene says after completing their education her two married uncircumcised girls.

Her lowest moment as a circumciser was when one of her clients, whom she didn't know was pregnant, developed complications during childbirth in hospital and lost her baby.

Tiaty East subcounty assistant county commissioner Steve Muonge says FGM is no longer just a retrogressive culture but a crime; adding that state officers, among the chiefs, should identify and arrest the culprits.

He further recognises the role played by NGOs to end retrogressive cultures and get children to school. “It is a basic right for every Kenyan child to go to school to acquire basic knowledge and later become self-reliant,” Muonge says.

He says FGM prevalence has dropped from 90 to 70 per cent, thanks to concerted efforts by the government and stakeholders.

"As we speak we have managed, through the help of Tangulbei Women's Network, to rescue some 33 girls aged nine to 13 from their harsh parents who forced them to undergo FGM and later early marriage." The girls are housed at Tangulbei Boarding Primary School.

He says the girls are safe and warns the parents against going to the school to claim them, saying they will be arrested to face the full force of the law.

Muonge appeals to well-wishers to help buy beds, mattresses, uniforms and shoes for the rescued girls.




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