As a teacher, I received training on FGM (female genital mutilation) and was told to be vigilant, identify children that could be at risk and do all that I could to protect them. Thankfully I never encountered it in my teaching career, but reading testimonials from survivors stayed with me for a long time.
Whilst some argue that FGM is a tradition, there is no denying that it is a brutal, painful and unnecessary procedure that is forced upon young girls. It mutilates girls, causing them a lifetime of unnecessary pain.
Mary is someone who has dedicated her life to ensuring that FGM is a tradition that stays firmly in the past.
The youngest of seven children, Mary was born in a small town near the Kenya/Tanzania border. She was born ambitious and has travelled across Europe and Africa in pursuit of empowering women. She works tirelessly to ensure that every woman sees that they have the right to control their own body and destiny, fighting a range of issues from FGM, lack of education and forced marriage.
She is a woman fighting for the rights of women every single day. The word inspiration gets thrown around a lot these days, but Mary is without a doubt an inspiration.
How did you become involved in working with the charity Msichana Empowerment Kuria?
I was born in the heart of Kuria and was always well aware of the calendar of the vise (female circumcision), which is in December when schools have closed Christmas. The vacation is longer so the communities take advantage of this so that girls will be fully healed before they go back to school.
I was in a coastal part of Kenya working at a rescue centre when I received a call from a girl who told me that her parents were about to take her with younger sister for initiation in Kuria. She was 16, her sister was 11.
Whilst I made arrangements to fly to Nairobi to see how I could rescue them, I told her to stay alert and give me all the details of the happenings. I Googled the details of the centres that are involved with anti-FGM in Kuria and that’s how I came across Msichana Empowerment Kuria.
Thankfully, I managed to rescue the girls to the centre.
What is the aim of Msichana Empowerment Kuria and what work does it do?
Essentially it’s a hope centre for girls who want to live in an FGM free community.
Years ago, girls of this region had no choice as the circumcision was forced on every girl. No one could say no. It was expected that every woman would go through the process, so our mission is to build a community free of female genital mutilation, where every girl can grow up free of any form of violence. The main aim is to help empower and educate all those involved.
For anyone who doesn’t know what FGM is, what is it and why does it happen?
Defined by the World Health Organisation, FGM ,or female genital mutilation, compromises of all procedures involving partial or total removal of the female external genitalia or simply excision of the clitoris and labia for non medical reasons.
Communities that practice FGM gave unexplainable reasons as to why the tradition is carried out, with some stating it marks the transition of girl to woman, others saying that it is performed to slow down women’s desire. Every community that practices FGM has their own reason, but some don’t even know why they’re doing it. Often they use enticing language to girls, saying things like ‘if you don’t go through it, no man will be willing to marry you’.
How does FGM impact woman’s life?
There are several effects of FGM, but I’ll single out the main few.
- Recurrent urinary and vaginal infections.
- Chronic pain. Some girls never fully heal from the procedure.
- Epidermis cysts.
- Difficult labour because the labour pain doesn’t come naturally.
And finally, FGM creates abnormal female sexual functions.
Msichana Empowerment Kuria is a female led organisation that helps young women. Why is it important to you to help other women?
I was born into this community and I have seen a lot how this is a community that doesn’t support women. Once a girl goes through FGM, she is married off to whoever is ready to pay, even if it is against her will or she doesn’t love that man. Age differences aren’t an issue either.
My mission is to change this so that equality is born.
Women in my community have other problems apart from FGM, especially those that are not privileged enough to have a basic education. Without education, women will be forced to always be idle in a male dominated society. Girls drop out of school due to pregnancy and then no one is willing to take them back to school. I want to target such a group of women and tell them its not too late. I also want to help widows and orphans.
My hope is that if I empower ten women, the empowered will help me empower 110 women.
You have faced lots of challenges in your personal life, yet the work you do is incredibly selfless. How have you stayed a someone who wants to help others through trying times you have experienced?
I am determined to make a difference because of what I have seen through the years. My interaction with other Kenyan communities teaches me that some African traditions are outdated and were used to promote male dominance. I will never have peace when I know another woman somewhere is suffering. My small effort can change the situation. Speaking out changes situations.
I gave myself a promise to empower other women. That promise is alive and kicking, no matter what.
FGM is a practice that has only recently been discussed in mainstream media even though it has a long tradition of taking place. What difference has talking about it made?
The media has made a great progress to show the world how ugly FGM is. Communities used to hide the real nature of this and viewed it as a tradition. With social media at hand, the world can now clearly see the dark side of it.
The few campaigners that we used to have didn’t have the capacity and finances to fight this deep rooted culture, but thanks to things like social media we have received many donations that have helped with resources and materials, facilitating teachers and recruiting people to stop FGM.
Another benefit is that girls can now easily communicate with possible rescuers by sharing photos, messaging on Whatsapp or video calling.
You do so much to encourage women to better themselves. What has been the proudest moment of your career so far?
My proudest moment has been when I went to Burundi Bujumbura and gathered the women who were waiting for men to provide for them. I sent for baskets of weaving material and taught them how to weave doormats, shopping baskets and table cloths. I bought soap making chemicals and showed them how to make liquid soap. I left Burundi a proud woman, the project still running and the women very active.
Another proud moment is when I visited a children’s rescue centre and the children surrounded me and told me how happy they were.
Whenever I save a girl from FGM I feel proud. Whenever I are happy support a needy a child with education I feel proud. Whenever I listen to a song from an orphan boy I am nurturing makes me feel proud.
If I want to support Msichana Empowerment Kuria, what can I do?
We have several needs that can make this centre a success. To do that, we need donations.
If you can sum up your outlook on life in one statement what would it be?
Life can be very wonderful if we see other humans as human and not inferior. Anytime you’re fine, know that someone else is suffering somewhere because a fellow human is infringing his or her rights. Help where you can.