Imani escaped the cut. Here is how ChildFund is fighting to end FGM for girls like her.

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Posted on 02/03/2022
A teen girl in Kenya looks somberly at the camera.
Imani*, 18.


“When a girl is educated, it’s a waste. The family will never be repaid.”

Imani can still hear her grandmother’s muttered words years later. Most of the older folks said things like that – it was tradition. Everyone knew that when a girl grew up and got married, the show was over: She would be taking care of her husband’s family from then on, not her own. What was the point of educating a girl, spending time and money and resources on a girl, when she was destined to leave home anyway?

Some of the young people spoke differently. They talked about a new Kenya where girls got educated, even up through college, and waited to get married and have children. They made their own decisions and took care of their own families and lived their own desires.

Imani could see both kinds of girls in her future, swirling caricatures of potential that seemed to shift back and forth like a hologram depending on the circumstances in which she found herself. There was the young wife Imani, who dropped out of school after she got pregnant with her first baby, no different from the other girls. Then there was the educated Imani. She stayed in school and chose her own career path. She took care of her little sister Sarah, provided for her and taught her what it meant to be strong.

For a time, it seemed to Imani that these potential futures were far away – something she would figure out later. But when she was 17, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, locking down their rural town in Kitui County. As their savings ran dry and the family began to feel desperate, her parents went away in separate directions in search of work. 

Imani, Sarah and their brother were left behind with their grandmother. Her muttered words of marriage and bride prices pierced the morning air, severing the image of the educated girl from Imani’s mind as though with a blade.

“You must be cut,” she told Imani and Sarah.

Facts on female genital mutilation (FGM)

Although Kenya has outlawed female genital mutilation, countries including Kenya continue to experience high rates of the practice in rural areas like the town where Imani lives. In this traditional practice, also known as female circumcision, a young girl’s external genitalia are partially or totally removed in order to prepare her for marriage.

FGM is associated with cultural ideals of femininity, modesty and fidelity, including the notion that girls are clean and beautiful after the removal of body parts that are considered unclean, unfeminine or male. Social pressure to conform to these ideals is powerful. But there are no health benefits to the practice – only risks. FGM can cause severe bleeding and problems urinating, as well as later cysts, infections and complications in childbirth that can even end in death. 

Regardless of physical health outcomes, women who have been cut usually experience more pain with sex. In Imani’s community, they are quickly married young, trapping them in a generational cycle of poverty.

“I’ve seen how girls who were cut would be in pain, get constant infections,” Imani says. “Immediately after they’re cut, they’re married. Immediately after they’re married, they get pregnant. They’re nothing but field hands for the rest of their lives. We didn’t want this to happen to us.”

The future suddenly felt crystal clear. Imani knew which version of herself she would choose. In an act of bravery – just as her grandmother’s preparations for the cut, the marriage and the bride price were underway – she ran away from home, taking Sarah with her.

The fight to end FGM

The sisters ran to a neighboring county where their maternal grandmother lived. Much to their relief, this grandmother felt differently about circumcision. She wouldn’t think of marrying the two girls off at an early age. Still, she could not afford to feed them.

Imani remembers how they survived in those days, doing little chores around the neighborhood for money – scavenging for and selling firewood, fetching water for neighbors. They attended school on and off, usually two days a week, but there wasn’t much spare time for anything besides work. They had to eat.

One day, Imani had walked hours by herself to look for work when she found herself in a town she’d never been in before. She caught the attention of the local chief, Jacob, and his wife, Ester.

“When I saw her, I knew she had come from far away and that she was hungry,” Chief Jacob remembers.

Imani had stumbled into the right people. Not only is Chief Jacob the authority over 8,000 people in his locality of 36 towns, but he is also a community-based child protection champion working with ChildFund’s Jukumu Letu project. Chief Jacob uses his authority in the locality to help end harmful practices that affect children, like child labor, child abuse, FGM and early marriage. He organizes door-to-door awareness campaigns and calls together mass community meetings where thousands of people gather to discuss child protection issues. 

“Our culture traditionally practices FGM,” Chief Jacob says. “I could see other areas where they did not practice it or where it was forbidden, and I could see how much they were progressing compared to us. I wanted that for us here.”

The fight to end FGM in their community has not been easy. Even now, many people think that it should be protected as a cultural practice. But Chief Jacob takes the issue seriously and brings down the full force of the law on violators.

“We started this in 1999 and had to arrest many people along the way,” Chief Jacob says. “In 2019, we had an instance where a few girls were taken out of this area to a neighboring county to be cut.” They thought that by fleeing the area, they wouldn’t be caught. “But when they returned, we arrested the circumciser and the girls’ parents. The offenders received three years in prison and a 200,000 KSH fine. 

“Today you won’t hear of any instance of FGM in my area, only girls being educated. People here have accepted the message.”

How ChildFund works to stop FGM

A ChildFund social worker and a local chief speak to a young girl in Kenya.
Imani talks with Chief Jacob (left) and a social worker for ChildFund’s Jukumu Letu project. The project, which means “our responsibility” in Swahili, has reached 19,500 children and youth with child protection services, increased reporting of child protection issues, and helped to change community perceptions of FGM.

When Chief Jacob and Ester learned Imani’s story, they felt a special calling to help her. They gave her some money to go back to her maternal grandmother’s home and complete her primary school exams. Once Imani passed her exams, she came to live with the family so she could live near a secondary school and concentrate on her studies.

Chief Jacob and Ester still send a bit of money back to Sarah and her grandmother when they can. Meanwhile, “Imani can stay here and get an education until the time when she can fend for herself,” Chief Jacob says.

Since the time we interviewed Imani, ChildFund has opened a 100-bed rescue center in the community where girls and young women can stay to escape FGM, early marriage, sexual violence other abuses while continuing to go to school.

“ChildFund’s support has moved this place very far,” Chief Jacob says. “They have helped young girls with school fees so they can graduate and become employed. Ideas and advocacy and education, hand in hand, have transformed the lives of girls in our area.”
For Imani, the future is becoming clearer every day – solidifying into a still image of an educated woman who has control over her choices.

“I wanted to continue with school. I saw how much other children who had been married off suffer,” she says. “But here, I have an education and peaceful place to stay. I’m blessed. I just thank God.”

Learn more about ChildFund’s Jukumu Letu project and other child protection programs in our new Impact Report.

*Imani’s name has been changed to protect her privacy. 
A teen girl in Kenya sits at a desk, slightly smiling.