Samburu, Kenya

Emily Lemaseu, not her real name, never forgets to thank Fr Francis Riwa for rescuing her from female genital mutilation and forced marriage, both common practices in her Samburu community in northern Kenya.

“He picked me up from the street after I escaped home when I realised my parents wanted me to undergo FGM and get married in exchange for cows,” said the 16-year-old girl, who was rescued from the streets in 2016. “I was afraid as this could have forced me to drop out of school and become a mother at an early age.”

Kenya the childrens centre at Nchiru Catholic Parish

Children gather outside the administration block at a children’s centre at Nchiru Catholic Parish in the Diocese of Meru in north-eastern Kenya. PICTURE: Tonny Onyulo

Lemaseu said she escaped from their home in the wee hours after realising her mother was planning to hand her in the morning to the woman who performs the procedure. Fearing that the procedure that involves removing the girl's labia and much of the clitoris in unclean conditions could risk her life and destroy her future, she walked for several kilometers to save herself.

“I also feared I could die because several girls had died due to the practice,” she said.

Kenya girls Fr Francis Riwa

Fr Francis Riwa gestures in late August at Nchiru Catholic Parish in north-eastern Kenya when he commissioned a new dormitory for children living with HIV. Fr Riwa, 62, has spent decades helping street children, orphans and poor nomadic children in the northern desert region of Kenya. PICTURE: CNS photo/Doreen Ajiambo.

 

“My passion is to rescue and assist the most vulnerable children in society, including those who have escaped from FGM and early marriage...I ensure that those children I save have access to education and live a comfortable life like other children elsewhere.”

Fr Francis Riwa

Riwa picked her up with other kids from the streets of Meru, a town in eastern Kenya, 80 killometres from her village in Samburu, and took her to the children’s centre in his parish in the Diocese of Meru, where other girls also seek haven.

“The priest showed me love and embraced me like his own child,” said Lemaseu, who is now in grade 12. “He enrolled me in school, and life has been good for me.  I thank God through the priest for saving me and ensuring I continue with my education.”

Lemaseu is among thousands of young girls in Kenya, especially in the northern part of the country, who are increasingly being rescued or saved by religious leaders from the ritual of female cutting, considered a fundamental step culturally in becoming an adult.

FGM is a global problem that’s also mostly practiced in many countries in the north and central Africa and parts of the Middle East. The United Nations estimates more than 200 million girls and women worldwide suffer the consequences of cutting procedure. The UN predicts that if current trends continue, 15 million additional girls ages 15 to 19 will be subjected to mutilation by 2030.

In Kenya, UN data shows that around four million or one in five women and girls have been subjected to FGM. The data also notes that 21 per cent of girls and women aged 15 to 49 years have been circumcised.

“My passion is to rescue and assist the most vulnerable children in society, including those who have escaped from FGM and early marriage,” said Riwa, noting that he also rescues orphan children and other children who have been abandoned by their parents because of their mental or health conditions. “I ensure that those children I save have access to education and live a comfortable life like other children elsewhere.”

Riwa asks his congregation and well-wishers at his rescue centre to care for the children through donations like food, blankets, clothes, and other items. He enrolls the young girls rescued from early marriages and other vulnerable children in several schools he has founded in the region.

He also visits rural villages with his team to support and encourage young, poor nomadic girls to go to schools rather than marry.

“I am happy because most of the children I have helped have finished school and are right now working. Others are in secondary schools, colleges, and universities,” he said, adding that he began the centre more than two decades ago as a missionary. “For me, it’s a passion. I feel satisfied when I help people. I thank God that those I have assisted have come back to help with the mission to ensure we help the vulnerable children.”

Kenya Samburu elders

Samburu elders in northern Kenya. Traditionalists in Samburu and Maasai in Kenya still practice FGM despite being outlawed in the country. PICTURE: Tonny Onyulo.

In Isinya, a small town located about 80 kilometres south of Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, Pastor Stephen Lenku Tipatet and more than 300 pastors are rescuing girls from FGM and early marriages from their homes and provide them refuge at a reconciliation centre where they provide alternative rites of passage.

Tipatet said the procedure where women circumcisers use sharp knives and razors to remove clitoris from the girls between the ages of six to 18 posed a considerable risk, including health risks, early marriages, and abandoning education.

“The practice has no beneficial purpose for the community and the girls,” said Tipatet from the Presbyterian Outreach Mission Church. “We are going village by village and home by home to rescue these girls and give them hope through the word of God and provide them with education to achieve their dreams.”

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Some of their alternative rites of passage include giving girls formal education and life skills and sharing the gospel with the girls. Tipatet said they have been holding workshops and weekly meetings with perpetrators, survivors, elders, and local officials to discourage them from forcing young girls to undergo FGM and early marriages.

He said the practice has paid off, with many parents opting to take their girls to school instead of subjecting them to the procedure. He said that girls who are forced to undergo FGM are increasingly running away from their homes and seeking refuge at his centre.

“The word of God is changing the hearts of parents and elders to understand that FGM is not Biblical, and they need to abandon it,” said Tipatet. “We are seeing many girls going to school instead of being cut and forced to get married to older men in exchange for cows. The number of girls coming to the centre has also reduced, meaning our efforts are bearing fruits.”

Kenya Samburu women

  Samburu women stand outside their house in northern Kenya. Religious leaders are rescuing thousands of girls from Samburu and Maasai communities from the ritual of female cutting, considered a fundamental step culturally in becoming an adult. PICTURE: Tonny Onyulo.

Rev Kennedy Mwita, a senior pastor at Moheto First United Methodist Church in south-west Kenya, said the region was a hotspot for FGM and early marriages. He said the COVID-19 lockdown had escalated the prevalence as schools had remained closed in 2020 and some part of 2021 as the government struggled to fight the virus.

However, he has been holding workshops for girls to educate them about the dangers of FGM, encouraging them not to drop out of school, to work hard, and ensure they pass their examinations to achieve their dreams in life. They have also been empowering local women, leaders, and circumcisers in the affected areas with education about the effects of FGM to discourage them from promoting the practice.

"We are rescuing girls every day, especially when schools are closed and they are at home with their parents," Mwita said.

He owns a rescue centre for girls where they are taught about their rights to education and offered psychosocial support. Those who are traumatised as a result of running away from their parents to save themselves from FGM are counselled by experts to help them heal from emotional trauma, he said.

Rev Mwita encouraged religious leaders to come together and fight the menace through the word of God using their influence in society.

“The practice violates the women's body which is the temple of the Holy Spirit," he said. “As a church, we should come together and preach against the practice through the Gospel to ensure our girls' rights are protected.”