Female Genital Mutilation leads not only to severe physical consequences but also psychological and emotional ones ranging from depression, to lack of self-esteem, isolation, solitude, marginalization, insecurity, memory loss and fear of sexual intercourse to post-traumatic stress disorder. A counseling psychologist working with girls in rural Kenya shares her experiences in this interview.
I wanted to talk about the psychological consequences of girls undergoing FGM and how they relate with others within their community. It was also important to determine what is needed, in this case in Kenya (but it can definitely fit other countries) to educate and train girls and women to end FGM. I spoke to Severina Lemachokoti. Severina underwent FGM when she was 13. She is a former primary school teacher and a psychologist working with Kenya’s Anti-FGM Board (under the Ministry of Devolution and Planning) in Samburu County. She is also the founder of Naretu Girls and Empowerment Program, a community-based organization focused on educating and empowering girls and women.
It’s important that Severina calls on all psychologists and teachers in the country to take action and create a network of support for those girls and women who have already undergone FGM and those who are at risk.
VALENTINA MMAKA - As a psychologist most of your work is done with girls and women who have undergone FGM and survivors, can you share with us how is you do this?
SEVERINA LEMACHOKOTI - As a Counseling Psychologist, I offer girls and women psycho-social support. This helps them come out of the trauma from the cut and the stigma they feel after learning about the effects of FGM. This is usually done after or during the trainings. When cases of FGM are reported at the hospital, I follow up to help the patients/victims. It’s a work full of challenges because there are no facilities that help the survivors to stay and get the necessary support they need in one place.
VALENTINA MMAKA - We all know the physical and psychological consequences of FGM but please share with our readers what are the most common psychological conditions manifested by the girls you work with in your community.
SEVERINA LEMACHOKOTI - The girl's self-esteem is lowered by the practice. A young Samburu girl is not supposed to answer back to the men. They are supposed to be submissive. The rituals that surround the cut force young girls to act like adults even when they are still at a tender age; this leads to early marriages. The trauma of the unknown pain follows the girl to womanhood. The pain is from the razor blade without any medication. Those women who have shared their stories and from experience say that the pain from FGM is worse than that of giving birth because of the veins that are cut (in the clitoris). The girls are not prepared for the cut/ceremony. It’s not like the boys who are prepared by the whole community. Therefore the girls are gripped by anxiety and fear of what awaits them.
In a situation where girls are married immediately after the cut and almost immediately after go to their husbands (whom they do not know beforehand) they fear the new environment. When infections or cysts manifest, women do not talk about it and they end up living with the pain and trauma.
VALENTINA MMAKA - Most girls undergo the cut during school vacation. How deep is this practice still rooted in the county you work in? How much do the girls acknowledge the consequences of being cut?
SEVERINA LEMACHOKOTI - Yes, girls are still cut during school vacation. Those who are not in school undergo the cut anytime as long as the parents are ready to have them cut. The practice is still deep-rooted in most of the communities in Kenya. Girls still fear to make decisions about saying No to FGM.
VALENTINA MMAKA - What normally happens at school when girls come back after the cut? How are they perceived from younger mates and, most of all, what is their real emotional and psychological state?
SEVERINA LEMACHOKOTI - Most girls feel good because they think they are more mature than the rest. They feel superior and accomplished with the cultural requirements (they are always told that they are ready for marriage). On the other hand, in schools where sensitization has been done, girls feel stigmatized and embarrassed upon realization of the effects of FGM and fear of what they might go through at a later stage in their lives ( womanhood/giving birth). They become anxious of their future and what fate might bring them.
VALENTINA MMAKA - Do they ever question why this is done to them in a more critical way a part from knowing that it's a tradition? I mean have you ever encountered girls who would like to take a stand against FGM regardless to tradition?
SEVERINA LEMACHOKOTI - Most of the girls go through the cut as a cultural practice and a rite of passage. They just know that they have to go through it. Many girls would like to say NO but only a few, so far, have succeeded to stay without being cut (but still they fear speaking out about it). Others would like to, but their parents and family can’t allow them have the last decision. Most girls are not assertive.
VALENTINA MMAKA - Do you think there's a difference, in terms of emotional and psychological stability, for a girl who lives in the west to be brought home to be cut during summer holidays, and a girl who lives in the village within her community? I mean to say, is there a difference in the impact that FGM has on the two in relation to their life experience?
SEVERINA LEMACHOKOTI - Yes, the girl from the west might be more informed of the effects she will suffer on an emotional and psychological level, but she might also have no idea of other cultural practices surrounding the cut, and this will traumatize the girl since she will not be ready for it. A girl who lives in the community is aware of the culture and the requirement. She might have a rough idea on when she will be cut, so she can prepare herself for the cut. Her trauma will be less than the girl living in a western country.
VALENTINA MMAKA - Living with a permanent physical and psychological scar like the cut is something that millions of women unfortunately have to deal with on a daily basis. What is the path to become self-conscious of themselves getting rid of the stigma and discrimination (especially if you live outside FGM practicing communities) in order to make impact despite the experience they had?
SEVERINA LEMACHOKOTI - A lot of sensitization is needed and psychological counseling centers to be put up. Counseling is needed for post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety.
VALENTINA MMAKA - How much the of trauma from the cut could lead to a mental health condition?
SEVERINA LEMACHOKOTI - This is something that we need to look into and do more research on.
VALENTINA MMAKA - We know Kenya has a lack of adequate psychologists and psychiatrists and services are often expensive or non-existent in many areas of the country. What could be the best strategy of support to help one who has undergone FGM?
SEVERINA LEMACHOKOTI - The campaigners should have basic skills of psychological counselling. Those who are already in the career should think of how to start centers that can help with cheaper services.
VALENTINA MMAKA - Teachers, not only in Kenya but worldwide, are not trained to deal with FGM survivors or girls at risk. How important would it be if teachers and school facilitators could be properly trained? How much of their training and preparation could make impact in a classroom?
SEVERINA LEMACHOKOTI - Teachers are key persons who could help girls understand their rights and help them realize the decision of saying NO. Their training is very important because most of them have the trust of the children (girls) and this gives them an opportunity to educate girls on the effects of FGM. Teachers will help girls love school more than the retrogressive cultural practice.
VALENTINA MMAKA - Immigrants often continue the practice while abroad, despite the fact they are confronted with a new culture, just to keep a tight the bond to their original culture. Migration is a tough experience for many and many communities feel that they don' t want to change what has been in their culture for centuries. From the ground, how much is the real pressure of communities on their youth about FGM?
SEVERINA LEMACHOKOTI - I have not encountered any migrant who has undergone FGM but I only read about them. In most communities FGM comes with responsibilities of the traditions which make every youth to comply with the cultural laws. The youth have an obligation to fulfil in the community because they are the ones who will see the culture progress to the future generations.
VALENTINA MMAKA - Many young girls who don't want to undergo the cut are often left alone, with no choice than to follow what the family requires from them, unless they run away from home. Addressing a message to these girls, what would you suggest? And to teachers?
SEVERINA LEMACHOKOTI - As much as the girls would like to run way from the cut, there are no places for them to seek for help. Counselling centers, educational centers or rescue centers are needed to help these girls. Teachers need to be trained so that they can be able to handle the survivors and the rescued girls.
VALENTINA MMAKA - What's your opinion on how Kenyan institutions are handling FGM?
SEVERINA LEMACHOKOTI - Most institutions in areas where the practice is done have allowed the sensitization programs to be carried out but there is still a lot to be done. There should be a curriculum to guide institutions for FGM.
* Valentina Mmaka is a writer and human rights activist advocating to end FGM. She is the author of the upcoming book, “The Cut: Global Voices for Change. Breaking silence on FGM.” (Dell’Arco 2015). Her website is www.valentinammaka.com
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