Jecinta Isei, aged 20, talks about the difficulties of refusing circumcision in her Maasai community, the implications of this harmful practice deeply rooted in various communities in Kenya and her fight to end it.
Kenya outlawed Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in 2011. Despite this, 21% of Kenyan women are circumcised today. The Demographic Health Survey of Kenya found that FGM among 15-49 year old women declined from 37% in 1998 to 27% in 2009, which shows how slowly this culture is changing.
FGM is known to be a cultural practice, though some people refer to it as a religious demand despite the fact that no religion mentions it. In Kenya FGM is deeply rooted among the Maasai, the Pokot, the Samburu, the Somali, the Kuria, the Kalenjin and many more. FGM is considered a taboo, so the communities who practice it don’t talk about it much. Even though there are many organizations (international and grassroots) working to eradicate FGM, the practice is still carried on. As a matter of fact the Kenyan Government should make it mandatory to include FGM as part of a complementary educational program on human rights in all schools of the country, so that the cultural change of collectively eliminating FGM, could start from the youth, who are known to be the real change makers of society.
In my years working with FGM survivors I met many activists and artists committed to using their art for social justice, and I always feel very delighted when I meet with young activists who, despite all the difficulties they face, never give up and always have their final goal clear in mind. One of these young activists is Jecinta Isei from Rombo, County.
Jecinta Isei is just 20 years old and she has a dream. It is a dream that many girls of her age and coming from rural Kenya have: get an education. Jecinta has also one more reason to want to go to college, she is an activist advocating to raise awareness on FGM in Loitokitok County. Going back to her personal story, she told me that the reason why she couldn’t finish her education was that she repeatedly refused to undergo the cut. Her family stopped paying her school fees, because she did not follow the tradition which is deeply rooted in this remote region of Kenya. But this didn’t stop Jecinta to look for her biggest goal: to become a well trained activist who can stand for thousands of girls to save them from the cut.
Thanks to local teachers Jecinta is now able to visit schools and meet with young students where she speaks about the dangers of FGM. Life is not easy, she admits, being discriminated and ostracized because she is not cut, but Jecinta doesn’t give up. Reaching the age of 20 being uncut in Maasai culture, is quiet an achievement and tells how stubborn and courageous Jecinta is. Here is our conversation.
VALENTINA MMAKA: Jecinta, where do you live and what is your background?
JACINTA ISEI: I come from a humble background in Rombo, Loitokitok sub county. I live with my mother because my father passed away a long time ago when I was still a small kid. Life has been a bit harsh on me, because I come from a culture where FGM is very rooted and thanks to God I escaped the menace through schooling outside the Maasai environment.
VM: When and how did you start being an activist advocating against FGM?
JI: As a young girl I really disliked the fact that we have to undergo the cut. I realized that all my primary school friends who underwent the cut while we were still in class 5, dropped out of school and got married. Some even died while giving birth at home due to lack of knowledge from both their uneducated parents and from the men who married them. That is why I said to myself that I must work hard, stand up to be a woman of substance, and support my fellow girls not to undergo FGM so that they don’t get married at an early age.
VM: Being just 20, you’re one of the youngest activists in your community to raise awareness on Female Genital Mutilation. How did you become an activist?
JI: Through the hate I have for FGM and whatever I see in my community especially my class mates, I decided to work hard and talk to young girls and prove to them that you can be a leader and woman without the cut.
VM: Growing in a culture that demands girls to be cut, what have you been told by your family about the importance of being a circumcised girl?
JI: My extended family believes that if you give birth as a woman without the cut you will kill your parents, which is the greatest myth and it has the biggest impact in our community now that people believe in it.
VM: You go to schools in your community talking to girls and boys about FGM, do you receive support from the teachers? What is the main challenge you face every day?
JI: The biggest challenge I have is cultural believes and transport to the schools. as no organization has been supporting my work and I am willing to get to the farthest schools.
VM: And what is the feedback from the students? What do they really know about FGM and what do they think about it?
JI: I show the students a short documentary that I carry with me on the phone, photographs and at times I get support from the African Medical R E Frontier (AMREF) whenever they go for their outreaches. Most of the pupils, if given the chance, would stand up and say no to being cut to the whole community.
VM: What is the best reward you get form your activity?
JI: The girls really make me strong and I feel the power to move on now that their eyes are on me and they believe that I will be their savior.
VM: You haven’t been cut, how did you manage to reach 20 without being cut in a community where usually girls are cut between 9 and 15? How did your family react to this decision?
JI: It has been a tough fight and I thank my mother for making sure that I don’t stay at home whenever schools were closed because it would have been forced on me. Studying outside Loitokitok was my escape way out.
VM: You said your family didn’t pay your school fees to attend college, was that because of not wanting to be circumcised? What was your first reaction? What are you doing to change this?
JI: Yes, not undergoing the cut has been a nightmare for some of my community members and it has directly contributed to my school fees not being paid. My mother cannot afford to pay my education and I am struggling hard to get a sponsor so that I can pay my collage fees and also continue supporting other young sisters.
VM: Jecinta, if a girl refuses to undergo FGM, objectively what option is she left with?
JI: To be honest there is no other option than running away from home or seek help from the local chiefs or church leaders.
VM: What is your relationship with your girl friends? Do they judge you because you are not cut?
JI: I have a few girls who are my friends now. 90% of the girls I know are married and they are told not to associate with me because I haven’t undergone the cut, they call me a baby, so most of my friends are from other communities and the girls I meet in schools during my visits.
VM: Have you had some support from age mates (female and male) for your stand against FGM?
JI: Yes, through the Youths Resource Centre in Loitokitok I meet up with age mates who are really supportive and who have already undergone the cut. They always tell me they regret it.
VM: I guess education will also improve your activism, what do you expect to achieve in the near future?
JI: God willing I would like to study and get a degree in gender and community development. I was called upon to join a collage and study project management and community development so I have to raise 80,000 Ksh school fees to do the diploma for the whole year.
VM: In Kenya there are quiet some movements and activists trying to eradicate FGM in their own communities. Do you ever confront yourself with some of them? How do you think FGM will be eradicated within the Maasai people? Do you think that involving men could help?
JI: I have been working with some organizations, but not many organizations in Loitokitok are working to end FGM. I think FGM can be eradicated if we talk to the parents, especially the fathers and I am glad that a movement of men involved to end FGM and promote girl education was started for the Morans (Maasai Worriors); they are the ones who marry and they are also fathers so their involvement will highly bring a change and impact.
VM: What is your biggest dream? My biggest dream is to have more girls standing out to study, reject FGM and see successful mentorship programs for girls in Loitokitok Kajiado County.
JI: My dream is to complete my education so when I talk to the people they know I am a well informed woman with dignity.
* Valentina Mmaka is an author and human rights activist advocating against FGM. Her website is www.valentinammaka.com
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