Rebby Sebei, 29, vividly remembers that early morning when she escaped from her parents’ home to her aunt’s place to face the knife. Initially, she did not want to be circumcised, but due to pressure from her already-circumcised peers in the village, she gave in.
“In my Pokot community, there’s no way you would live as a girl or a woman without being circumcised, especially when all of your friends have been cut. My aunt was a big supporter of female genital mutilation. So I informed her that I wanted to be circumcised just like my friends and she supported me,” Sebei told the Star.
“Since my mother has never been a supporter of FGM, my aunt advised me to escape in the wee hours of the morning and run to her home, so she could take me to the circumciser.”
Sebei was only 13 years old and in class 7 at the time. Her mother, a nurse by profession, is from the Tugen community, while her dad comes from the Pokot community in East Pokot, where they live. Both communities practise FGM.
It was during the school holidays that she made arrangements with her aunt to undergo the cut. She did this without her mother’s consent. Her father supports the practice since he knew the cut would guarantee his daughters get married, which would result in him getting 60 goats, 30 cows and 10 camels as dowry, according to the Pokot culture.
Sebei went ahead and bought a razor blade secretly and prepared herself that night. Her aunt advised her not to sneak out of home during the night but to leave in the morning, while her mother was still asleep. According to the aunt’s advice, Sebei would already be cut by the time her mother woke up.
“I woke up quietly, tiptoed towards the door and then ran away. It was a distance of around 5km. Unfortunately, one of my sister’s high school friends saw me running. She went to our home and informed her that she saw me running and suspected that I was heading to be cut. My sister had already undergone the cut and did not want me to undergo what she went through,” she said.
The cutting ceremony usually starts very early in the morning. Girls rush to the river to bathe first, then they run naked to the circumcision venue. She joined her peers at the river to bathe. But on her way to the circumcision venue, she met her elder sister.
“She got hold of me firmly and started beating me mercilessly. Then she dragged me home. My aunt confronted her, asking her why she did not want me to be circumcised yet she was circumcised. My sister told her that at the time she was being circumcised, she had no idea what it entailed and she was now well informed of the consequences of FGM and would not want me to undergo it,” Sebei said.
Sebei’s sister threatened to report their aunt to the police. She accused her of forcing her and three other sisters to undergo the cut. Sebei is the last born in a family of seven — five girls and two boys. All her four sisters are circumcised.
Sebei was later transferred from Komolion Primary School, where she was schooling at the time, to Tangulbei Primary School, so she could stay with her elder sister to thwart her efforts to undergo circumcision.
It is while she was living with her elder sister that Sebei came to learn of the impact being circumcised would have had on her life. Sebei looked at the life her elder sister was living and was grateful that she had not gone ahead with her plans to undergo circumcision.
“My sister dropped out of school in form two. She underwent the cut and was then married off immediately. She did not continue with her education. She was so bitter about FGM because it affected her education. She feels she was wasted,” Sebei said.
While at Tangulbei School, Sebei joined a forum targeting girls at risk of FGM. “I started learning about how bad FGM is. That is how my urge of wanting to be circumcised started disappearing,” she said.
Sebei was lucky to continue with her secondary education and was eventually admitted to Moi University to pursue a degree in business administration, majoring in finance and banking. Her admission to university was her mother’s answered prayers. She is the first one in her family to study up to a degree level.
“The girls we were with in my former primary school never made it to form one. After circumcision, they were all married off. In fact, some of them never completed primary school,” she said.
The news of Sebei’s friends broke her heart and prompted her to act. While in high school, she started talking to young girls in churches and schools during school holidays, telling them about the effects of FGM. It became her passion since she really wanted to help girls in her village, encouraging them to avoid the cut, so that they could continue with education just like her.
She thereafter gained courage to speak to girls after finishing her college studies.
“You know when you have a degree in East Pokot, people fear you so much. Some even encourage their daughters to study like you and become a role model in the society. This is why I got so much courage to continue with my anti-FGM campaigns,” she said.
The advocacy journey has, however, not been a rosy one. Sebei has been threatened a number of times, while trying to save girls in her community from undergoing the cut.
“One day during my visits to schools, one of the girls told me her family was planning to subject her to circumcision, something she did not want. The only way l could save her from the cut was by having her come home with me. When her family started looking for her, they realised I had hidden her in my house.
“Her brother came to my home and threatened to kill me if I did not let his sister go. He was so furious and since l could not fight back, l had to let her go with him. They took her and subjected her to circumcision. That was just beyond me,” she said with tears.
On another occasion, Sebei had to escape from her home in Chemolingot and hide in a hotel in Nakuru for a week to escape the wrath of villagers after a young man in the community exposed her as an anti-FGM campaigner.
She is frustrated that the local administration does nothing to stop the cut, even though they are aware the practice continues despite being illegal.
“The chiefs fear the community so much that they cannot arrest anyone circumcising their daughter. They are also threatened. All they have resorted to do is keep quiet and watch as culture prevails,” she said.
CUT AND TIED UP
According to the Kenya Demographic and Health Survey 2014 Report, 27.9 per cent of Pokot women and girls aged 15-49 have been circumcised. They perform the infibulation type of FGM. This is whereby the inner and outer labia are removed and the vulva is sutured, leaving just a small hole for urine and menstrual flow. An uncircumcised girl is usually referred to as forin in Pokot language.
The KDHS report further states that 90.3 per cent of those women and girls who have been circumcised, their flesh was cut and removed. Unlike other communities where a girl or woman is sewn up after undergoing the infibulation type of FGM, the Pokots do not sew their girls. Instead, they tie their legs for close to one month, so the wound can heal.
“When a girl is married and the husband cannot penetrate her, they take a horn and try to penetrate it through her vagina hole, so it can create space,” Sebei said.
This form of FGM not only leads to high rates of school dropouts and child marriages, but also increases Caesarean section births and fistula conditions.
FGM in the Pokot community is a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood. Once a girl has been cut, she is considered ready for marriage. This usually marks the end of her education.
A visit to many primary schools in East Pokot reveals that enrollment of girls in lower primary one, two and three is higher than that of boys. However, once they graduate to upper classes, the number starts declining. This is because girls’ circumcision is done at the ages of 10 years to 13 years. At times, some schools record only one girl sitting for the KCPE exam.
Sebei vowed to keep fighting against FGM. She said having more role models from the community would be effective in saving girls from the cut.
“Seeing girls go through the cut really torments me. Girls are usually pressured into undergoing the cut by their parents, peers and the community. It becomes too much pressure at times for them to handle. So many girls come to me telling me they don’t want to be circumcised. The only way I can help them is by directing them to the headteacher of Chemolingot Primary School, who is very supportive of our work and also part of the few anti-FGM fighters,” she said.