The mud-thatched shanty in Tana River was dimly illuminated, moonlight beamed through a cracked roof. Three occupants conversed in a low tone. It was 11 pm.

A man guarded the near-collapsing door to alert about any lurking threat.

Only one path led to this shanty, an infamous centre for Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), a procedure that alters or injures female genital organs for non-medical reasons, like the desire to increase bridewealth and to control female sexuality. It often involves the removal or cutting of the labia and clitoris.

It emerged that a couple in the shanty had sought the services of a traditional circumciser, also inside. The lovers wanted their 11-year-old daughter’s genitalia mutilated, an act Kenya criminalized in 2001, and later in 2011, enforced a minimum punishment of three years imprisonment and Sh200, 000 fine.

The wife was circumcised at age five – she saw fit to subject her daughter, Hanifa*, to the cut, which causes a host of serious health problems, including lifelong painful conditions such as fistula and fatal childbirth complications, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

The husband felt Hanifa was “incomplete” until she faced a knife, cruel gender-based violence.

The circumciser relied on unsterilized sharp knives, scissors, pieces of glass, or razor blades. She worked either at her centre or the homes of girls like Hanifa.

‘Holy’ cut

For this job, the couple was to pay the circumciser Sh200 but risked placing their daughter’s life on the line. Hanifa could bleed to death or die from infections.

This danger did not cross the pair’s mind as they believed FGM is a holy practice, necessary for social acceptance and increased marriage prospects.

The cutter was to circumcise Hanifa the following day at 4 am. Hanifa had company – her cousin and another girl, all younger than her, were to face the knife, as well.

But the plan leaked to the authorities and MUHURI Tana River Officer, Ogle Abdi.

The area assistant chief, Amuma Hiribae, convened an urgent meeting over the looming cut. Ogle and two other rights defenders — Ochido Asava and Fathum Abdi — were in attendance.

The administrator mapped out the centre and covered possible escape routes. He laid out a plan, which they were to follow with military precision. The goal was to rescue the three girls uncut, reduce harm as possible, and arrest the FGM practitioner and the parents. Security agents got embedded in the operation.

Unexpectedly, the circumciser changed her plan and opted to cut the girls at Hanifa’s home under the dark and leave before dawn. She was to disappear for some time, as she suspected an impending arrest.

The assistant chief, on the other end, placed Hanifa’s home and the centre under surveillance.

For this job, the couple was to pay the circumciser Sh200 but risked placing their daughter’s life on the line. Hanifa could bleed to death or die from infections.

Arraign or educate cutter?

A report reached Ogle that the circumciser had been spotted around Hanifa’s home.

“This information got us flat-footed and almost scuttled our operation because most of our attention was focused on the centre and not Hanifa’s home,” Ogle recalled, narrating details of the 2019 event, which marked a tactical shift in the war against FGM.

Muhuri Tana River Officer, Ogle Abdi.

MUHURI Tana River Officer, Ogle Abdi. Photo © 2020 Ernest Cornel/MUHURI

He spoke today, February 6, as the world marks International Day of Zero Tolerance to FGM. The United Nations mooted this commemoration in 2003 to save girls from the harmful act.

“Immediately, we headed to Hanifa’s home. We found the practitioner was almost getting down to work – her tools laid on the floor, girls paraded for the cut,” Ogle said.

Police arrested the couple and the FGM practitioner.

But there were mixed reactions on how to tackle the case, almost leading to a standoff. Some were for turning them into anti-FGM ambassadors, while others were for arraignment.

“Ultimately, we decided to incorporate them into Muhuri’s anti-FGM program, which had been underway since January 2018, and entailed teachings on dangers of FGM,” Ogle said.

The authorities placed the three under strict observation.

Reduced FGM cases

Ogle said this option paid off, as FGM cases reduced from a high of 10 in 2018, to just three in 2019, the year Muhuri started engaging the couple and the circumciser, who helped reach other practitioners to renounce the act.

“If we had not rescued Hanifa and others, we would probably be talking of over 10 cases in 2019,” Ogle said.

He said the biggest anti-FGM advocates in Tana River are former circumcisers.

“They have convinced those whom they used to work with, and they move in villages to talk about the dangers of female circumcision,” Ogle said.

Public awareness of the harmful cultures of FGM is on the rise, Ogle said, as this discussion forms the agenda of every community forums in Tana River, where circumcised women share heartrending life tales of their experiences.

Hanifa is now a Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) candidate, her colleagues in Standard Seven and Six. Her dream of becoming a neurosurgeon is intact.

“I don’t have to skip classes because of recurring complications tied to FGM,” she said. Hanifa doesn’t have to worry about death associated with FGM, either.

“My focus is education,” she said.

Ogle, however, is aware some locals might attempt to conduct FGM covertly during school holidays. He urged concerted efforts. MUHURI has formed a network with locals to handle this scenario.

End cut by 2022

WHO says FGM reflects deep-rooted inequality between the sexes and constitutes an extreme form of discrimination against women.

“The practice also violates a person’s rights to health, security and physical integrity, the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and the right to life when the procedure results in death,” WHO says.

In 2008, the World Health Assembly passed resolution WHA61.16 on the elimination of FGM, emphasizing the need for concerted action in all sectors – health, education, finance, justice, and women’s affairs.

As announced by President Uhuru Kenyatta in November 2019, the government plans to end FGM by 2022.

 Ogle said it is possible to defeat FGM.

“The strides are remarkable. We are approaching the end of this difficult situation in Tana River. It might not be so soon, but we are on the last stretch. There is hope,” he said.

*Name has been changed.