‘It ruined my life’: School closures in Kenya lead to rise in FGM
Thirteen-year-old Gumato can finally walk again without feeling pain.
The hot desert wind blows through her curly hair as she strolls between the portable, dome-shaped huts, made of acacia roots and covered with grass mats, colourful textiles and camel hides. In the near distance, a caravan of more than 50 camels passes by.
Gumato is from the Gabra, a nomadic camel-herding tribe that lives in a semi-arid region in northeast Kenya. Until mid-March, she had put on her pink blouse and dark blue skirt every day to go to school. Nowadays, she only wears her long traditional dress.
“I loved school and dreamed of becoming a science teacher,” says Gumato.
Her dream seems to be further away than ever.
Three days after Kenya recorded its first COVID-19 infection in mid-March, the government decided to close all schools. A few weeks later, Gumato’s parents decided to have their daughter undergo female genital mutilation (FGM), which is prohibited in Kenya but still practised by some tribes.
Since the enactment of laws against FGM in 2011, its prevalence in Kenya has dropped from 28 percent of women aged between 15 and 49 in 2008 to 21 percent in 2014.
But due to its great ethnic and cultural diversity, there are significant regional variations, with prevalence ranging from 0.8 percent in the west to more than 97 percent in the northeast (where the Gabra and Borana – which are Somali-Oromo ethnic groups – live) and 78 percent in the south, which is home to the Maasai people.
“We were happy that schools closed, because this gave us a better opportunity to circumcise our girls,” Gumato’s mother explains as she sits on the earth floor beside a small fire inside one of the huts. “School holidays normally are a bit short for the girls to fully recover.”
She wanted her daughter to undergo FGM, she says, because Gabra men only marry circumcised girls.
In early April, Gumato and two other girls were taken to a house in a village behind the hills without any roads or official administration. They were told to wash themselves with cold water – believed to be an anaesthetic within their community. Then, one by one, they were cut.
Two women held them from behind, two women held their legs, one woman covered their eyes and another did the cutting.
“It was extremely painful but I kept quiet, as the women assured me that if I would scream or cry, I would be seen as a coward and nobody would be willing to marry [me],” Gumato recalls.