My name is Caroline N. L., I come from the Ilchamus community of Marigat district Baringo County, Kenya. I am a founding member of Sinyati women group, a group founded in 1997 to fight for the rights of women and girls in the Ilchamus community. The Ilchamus community is a minority pastoralist tribe in Kenya with a population of 35,000 people. The Ilchamus live on the semi arid area around Lake Baringo in Marigat district, Baringo County, Rift Valley province. They keep livestock and do subsistence crop farming as well as small scale fishing in Lake Baringo. Due to high aridity and frequent droughts, the community has now diversified its means of livelihood to beekeeping and charcoal burning.

The Ilchamus practice circumcision for both boys and girls as a rite of passage to adulthood and a cultural identity as maa-speakers. Circumcision for boys is done in an organized manner after every 10 years while that for girl’s circumcision is done on case by case basis. Girls are circumcised when they are between 12-14 years after which they are married off to men older than them. Circumcision is performed by the traditional female circumcisers who are usually given some money and local brew as a token of appreciation.

FGM is a cultural practice which has been carried over from one generation to the next among the Ilchamus. They practice incision FGM type which involves the removal of the entire clitoris and the inner lips. They belief that the clitoris will harm the baby during childbirth or it will grow long and dangle like a man’s penis, making a woman sexually unattractive. Girl’s circumcision is a prerequisite for marriage. All parents do all they can to have their daughters circumcised so that they will be married and be part of an age-set (a social grouping to which one can only belong through circumcision and marriage) which gives women a status and identity in the community. The girl’s parents also get some prestige and respect for having done a circumcision ceremony and subsequently wealth trough bride price/dowry when their daughters get married. The mothers of the married girls are given a special cow called “Kesen” and a special wrist “copper bangle” as a thank you for having taken good care of the daughter. Consequently the husbands to the young girls gain respect, especially if the girls they married did not cry during circumcision. With these factors FGM continued in the community. It was a highly celebrated ceremony which involved every community member and the gods as well.

The Ilchamus also belief that pregnancy before circumcision and marriage is a taboo which comes with curses and for this reason parents purify their daughters by having them circumcised. In this case the parents will not suffer shame when their daughters become pregnant before marriage because they have been cleansed.

My campaign “No to girls’ early marriage and FGM” is about ensuring that young school girls are not forced to undergo female genital mutilation and early marriage. I have campaigned in villages and schools as a way to stop the community from circumcising and marrying off the girls at tender age of between 12 and 16. I hope to protect the girls from FGM and hence save them from early marriage, ensuring their continuation with education, which is a fundamental right for the girls as well. The ultimate goal is an educated society free from poverty.

The reason why I started to get involved in this campaign was because I have seen many school girls forced into early marriage. Very few girls join high school and for a long time I remained the only one with a university degree. I started wondering why? I then realized that the FGM practice paves the way for the girls to get married at an early age. Then I attended a seminar on the effects of FGM and I realized that the traditionally accepted and upheld FGM practice is bad and the government has banned it.

I then started to campaign among women mostly in the church and the community in general on the effects of FGM on the girls’ health and how it paves the way for the girls to be married off early as it presents them as “mature women” ready for marriage even when they are 12 years old. In the course of time, one girl from my village was forcefully circumcised and married off the next day. It was so painful to see this happening. In the same week another one was beaten up to accept to get married, thus dropping out of primary school. She ran away and came to me for rescue.

This campaign has had success in that there are girls today in my community who have not undergone FGM, they have continued with their education and had colourful weddings in the community. They have also given birth to sons and daughters contrary to the communities belief that uncircumcised girls will not get married and will be cursed and not have children, especially sons! This success story has since silenced the community and we are using it to advance the campaign. Some parents who have agreed not to have their daughters undergo FGM have become part of our campaign team and they have been of great support. Early marriage is also not as rampant as it was when the “No to girls’ early marriage and FGM” started, as more girls have continued to attend school even after undergoing circumcision

There have been some girls who have run away from threats to undergo FGM and early marriage, through the women support groups, we have been supporting them in the villages to get basic needs through our “merry-go-round” funds drive strategy. We have also linked some of them to the government children’s office and world vision to be taken to boarding schools and supported. One of them is a Kenya secondary education examination candidate and yet another one is now in college doing a diploma in accountancy.

As an SMK 2011 International Award winner, I have gained great skills which are helping me to be an effective advocate. I have learnt how to reach to the old people who are opposing my advocacy work. With these skills, I do plan to have the campaign intensified and reach all the villages in the community. I have since then been building the capacity of the advocacy members of Sinyati women group for effective advocacy. We have been going to villages to create awareness on the effects of FGM on the health of women. As I continue to receive mentorship from my mentor I will pass on these skills to others. I totally appreciate the opportunity I had to network with organizations like Equality Now, Forward, Womankind, Plan, and Manor Gardens amongst others. I have learnt so much from them. I felt encouraged and energized for intensive anti-FGM campaign. Thank you SMK ever so much.

I am persistently doing advocacy in my community with the members of Sinyati women group. We are doing community awareness trainings in villages on the importance of girls education, and against FGM, early marriage and wife beating. We are empowering women through building women support groups in the villages for woman to woman support and rescue girls from FGM and early marriage. We are also doing reconciliation between the girls who refuse to undergo FGM and those who run away from early marriages and their parents. We also assist the most needy girls to get sanitary towels and scholarships for secondary school education.

Today, because of advocacy against FGM among the Ilchamus, the prevalence of FGM is slowly reducing. The public attitude is slowly changing though the old people still belief that FGM should not be abandoned. The community is now seeing it as affecting the health of the women, education of the girls and community development in general.

In this campaign I desire to see my community stop practicing female genital mutilation and early marriage. In this case the girls will be able to continue with their schooling and become self reliant in future, rather than getting married at the age of below 15 and ever being dependant on other people. The girls rights will be protected from bodily harm of this practice. By many girls getting education, my minority indigenous community will not continue to live below the poverty line.

By Caroline N. Lentupuru