By Lydia Holden, Communications Lead for Grassroots Girls Initiative. Photo credit: Lydia Holden
Bouncing around in the back seat of the car, we descend potholed switchbacks into a dust bowl valley ravaged by commercial mining. Dr. Susan Chebet, founder of the grassroots organization Tumndo ne Leel, explains over the roar of dump truck drivers grinding the worn gears as they ascend, why this little village matters so much in her fight against female circumcision, also referred to as female genital mutilation (FGM).
“This area was a last bastion for female circumcision,” says Dr. Chebet. “People from the highlands would come down here to have the ritual performed. It was critical to introduce another rite of passage in this area to stamp out FGM in Kenya.”
Dr. Chebet observed that after the government limited, and then banned FGM, it didn’t stop the practice, but instead forced it underground: “FGM would even still be practiced in the church, but they would cover up the girl’s cries by singing hymns.” Knowing that there needed to be an alternative rite of passage to replace the traditional ceremony, Dr. Chebet wrote the curriculum “A Coming of Age Concept.” Girls are given lessons in empowerment, self-esteem, morals and hygiene, incorporating effective traditional lessons with modern ways of thinking. Girls still learn the important lessons passed down from generations of women, but replace the physical act of cutting with a graduation into young womanhood ceremony. “We are circumcising our hearts and minds, not our bodies,” says Dr. Chebet.
We arrive at the basin of the valley and slowly drive through the dry village, which has experienced total crop failure for the last two years, to the school. “Girls in this area have limited access to education—very limited compared to boys,” says Dr. Chebet. “When girls turn 12, the family expects them to provide labor for the family and domestic responsibilities take over. That’s when FGM usually happens. Early marriage, for girls about 16 years old, and pregnancy are other factors that keep girls from finishing school. Those who support girls’ education are ostracized.”
Dr. Chebet and I are invited into one of the classrooms where a group of girls are waiting to share their stories with me. In the upper primary there are 45 girls; only four girls remain in the freshman year high school class. I ask the girls about the Tumndo ne Leel program and the recently opened Centre for Social Transformation and Empowerment, where women and girls gather for the trainings and find support.
“I want to go into the Tumndo program because my life is very hard and they will help,” says Sandra Cheruiyot, 15. “The program can assist me in the importance of education and how to stay a girl and not follow men around. If you get pregnant it is the end of education. Or the parents may chase a pregnant girl away from the home. Tumndo will help us know our bodies and stay healthy.”
We drive back across the river, that trickles but no longer flows, to visit the Centre for Social Transformation and Empowerment. There a group of women show me the Centre and give me a tour of the grounds—where they are planning to grow mangoes, build a fish farm, garden and keep bees to earn money for their girls to stay in school. They hope to add an office to the building and a library with computers as a safe space for girls to go after school.
“This is a model that has replaced FGM without force or coercion and communities are embracing it themselves and have turned it into a new tradition,” says Dr. Chebet as we slowly drive up and out of the valley. “The women are looking toward a modern future and use the Centre to continue to educate each other, their girls and the community.”