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Young woman fights the knife

Female genital mutilation (FGM) is still rampant amongst ethnic groups in parts of Kenya. But thanks to the bravery of young women such as Alice Cherop, and the recently passed Children's Act, FGM may become a thing of the past.
Eric Maino

As the war on Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in Kenya continues, matters have turned nasty for Mary Kurgat. Earlier this year, on a sunny February morning, she found herself before an Eldoret magistrate to defend herself from an offence she couldn't believe. Her 17-year-old daughter, Alice Cherop, had filed a case, seeking orders from barring her mother from subjecting her to female circumcision.

At her tender age, Cherop is a brave woman, since she dared to defy traditional norms and seek legal recourse for an abhorrent practice deemed honourable by her Kalenjin community. Which is why Mary found the charge offensive to the extent that she regretted having given birth to Alice.

"It became the talk of the day, and was perceived as an absolute shame and a curse that befell the community," observed Irene Rono, a neighbour who hinted that Cherop would be excommunicated for shaming the elders, family, and community.

Cherop's brothers are said to be baying for her blood, accusing her of being arrogant and disrespectful, something that hasn't escaped the Form One student at Ngeria Girls School.

"I have no plans of going home; there is nothing big [there] apart from contempt," she says. "I prefer school." Well- wishers from Germany who have volunteered to pay the entire secondary education are financing her studies.

Cherop was one of five girls set to undergo the cut in December last year after having narrowly escaped another one in 2000. Two of the five girls were already married women whom tradition dictated must be circumcised to fit into the clan.

But, upon learning her mother's intentions, Cherop sought refuge in a neighbour's house, a house she had never been into. She harboured confidence that her host would not chase her away or betray her.

During the submissions, Cherop requested the court to bar her mother from instituting on her what she described as a "punitive and repugnant act." The magistrate concurred and issued an order restraining Cherop's mother, her agents, associates, and people with like mind from forcing Cherop to undergo FGM.

The ruling depended a lot on the Children's Act, which came into force late last year. The act criminalizes FGM, with Section 13 stating that: "Any person who subjects a girl child to cultural practices like FGM can be send to jail for 12 months if they are convicted by the courts. He or she can also be fined KSh50,000 [US$650]." And Section 14 says: "No person shall subject a child to cultural rites, customs, or traditional practices that are likely to negatively affect the child's life, health and social welfare, dignity, or physical or psychological development."

That is what Cherop feared as she faced the prospect of being subjected to a practice prevalent in Sub-Saharan Africa. Many communities highly grace the passage, saying that FGM attracts a handsome dowry, is a sure way to tame a wife to remain faithful to her husband, and sometimes believed to bring about good luck and respect to the family.

In Kenya, the rite is rampant, with Kisii District having the highest number of cases. About 30,000 girls aged between 12 and 16 years are mutilated every year in the country, according to Mariam Suleiman, FGM Program Co-coordinator for the Centre for Human Rights and Democracy (CHRD), an Eldoret-based NGO. Eldoret is located in the Rift Valley province where the ritual is so rampant.

The side effects, and results of, FGM include: the inability of women to enjoy sex once they mature; complications in childbirth; severe pain while the cut is occurring; and risk of infection with HIV/AIDS, since the same knives are used for many people at the same time and are often unwashed or unsterilised after each use.

Girls undergoing the practice are, in most cases, married off to elderly men of ages equal to their fathers. In fact, Cherop decided to forgo the tradition that her six elder sisters had undergone, after realizing that it was the first step towards an early marriage.

"My mother had already established me a suitor," said Cherop. "I was to be married off immediately after the "cut" and that could bar me from pursuing my studies," said the 10th born in a family of 11. Cherop had finished her primary education in 2000. She dreams of being a lawyer. She has never met the man who was to be her husband and who had already paid the required bride price.

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