The Compassion Kenya country office asks for prayer on behalf of girls forced to undergo female genital mutilation. This traditional but illegal practice often happens during school breaks, including the long December holiday, as girls and families travel to their rural ancestral homes.
In December 2012, 14-year-old fraternal twin sisters, Lemayian* and Nashipai*, ran away from home under the cover of darkness in search of refuge from an arranged female circumcision ceremony referred to as female genital mutilation (FGM).
That year, during school holidays, their mother, Nkitot*, requested that the girls come home from their sister's home to help with maize harvesting. The twins live with their elder sister because her home is closer to the child development center and school they attend.
When they arrived home, they were introduced to a visitor they didn’t expect.
The girls were stunned to see an old lady, rumored to perform female genital mutilation in the village.
Nashipai, the more outspoken of the twins, asked her mother what the lady was doing in their home. Her mother reluctantly replied:
"She is just here to visit me today."
The girls sensed that something was amiss when Nkitot insisted that they shave their heads at the local market. Nashipai wanted to keep her hair until school opened, and it sparked an angry confrontation with her mother.
Young Maasai women undergo female circumcision as part of an elaborate rite of passage that initiates young Maasai girls into adulthood and, ultimately, early marriage. The practice is deeply ingrained in the culture, such that women who have not gone through it are not considered for marriage, or if married, the bride price is heavily discounted, much to the disappointment of the bride’s family.
During a rite of passage ceremony, the shaving of hair symbolizes a fresh start from one life chapter to another.
Lemayian and Nashipai grew more anxious as darkness crept in. They snuck out of the house and hid behind a thicket near the home, waiting for the perfect opportunity to escape.
Every passing minute felt like an eternity, especially after their father arrived home and called out for the girls to greet him. They didn't respond. They stuck close to each other—quiet, terrified, prayerful.
"Please God, rescue us, if it’s your will."
Throughout the night they relied on the full moon to light their path, upon which they sprinted, jogged, walked and dragged themselves for the next four hours before seeking refuge in a homestead.
"Where are you from, and what are you doing walking around in middle of the night?" their worried host asked.
The twins wouldn’t say for fear of being taken back home.
"We have lost our way home," they said, adding that they’d be fine if they made their way to the Compassion center the following morning.
Before dawn, Lemayian and Nashipai thanked their host and walked for another two hours to reach their child development center. They were dusty and tired, yet relieved to have reached it safely.
Rankoi*, the center's social worker, was surprised to see the twins. When he learned what had happened, he summoned the pastor, center chairman, village chief and several village elders to discuss the next course of action.
Both parents were promptly summoned to explain the incident, and they arrived fuming at the children.
"How could you do this? Do you know how worried we were?"
The girls didn’t say a word.
The church leaders and the local chief intervened and reprimanded the parents, warning them of prosecution should they go through with the unlawful practice. They also explained why it's necessary to protect their girls from harmful traditional practices and about the need to educate their children.
The parents promised, reluctantly, not to make good on their initial intentions.
The law in Kenya prohibits female circumcision and other cultural practices considered to be violence against women. It is difficult to prosecute the perpetrators of FGM because of cultural allegiance. Usually, the practice is done in private and under the cover of darkness.
Female genital mutilation has resulted in birth complications and the spread of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections through the use of crude and unsterilized equipment during group rituals. In some instances, heavy bleeding has led to the death of young girls.
During school holidays in August and December, when female circumcision is usually performed in villages, children between the ages of 10 and 12 years old are given week-long training at the girl's development center, where they learn about their sexuality and their rights as children. The church has had remarkable success over the years.
As Rankoi narrates, "We understood that the key to dealing with the problem is through continuous education. Therefore, we engage several agencies, governmental and non-governmental, in educating our children to choose better health practices. As a result, we have documented a significant drop in the number of girls at the development center who have been circumcised. ... Almost all unsponsored girls in that age group in this village will be mutilated, compared to approximately 25 percent who attend the development center."
For girls who have been mutilated and pressured into early marriage, the church has helped them continue with their education by taking them to boarding schools and provided school fees, uniforms, books and other amenities.
Lemayian and Nashipai are protected at their elder sister’s home, and their parents have not forced them to go through the ritual. They have escaped the knife and the possibility of early marriage, but they are sympathetic to their peers who are adversely affected.
"We have three girlfriends in school who were circumcised and got married at the age of 12. Now they are 14 and they each have two children. We are sad for them because they can’t continue with school, and they will probably not achieve their dreams."
Lemayian and Nashipai dream of becoming a surgeon and banker, respectively. They are diligent students in school and are constantly among the top students in class. They have the confidence to emphatically deflect criticisms from older girls who ridicule them for abandoning their culture.
"We don’t feel any less [as] women,” Nashipai says, “because the Bible teaches us that we are all equal, and that we can do all things through Christ who gives us strength."
*Not their real names