In primary school, Kenyan activist Betty Lolgisoi watched as, one after the other, her friends went through female genital mutilation (FGM). In her village it was something that every girl went through as a rite of passage. However, after attending a World Vision training about the dangers of FGM, Betty’s mum encouraged her to stand up and say no. Despite the stigmatisation Betty and her family experienced, she held fast, and today works with World Vision to encourage other girls to avoid the practice too.
By Betty Naisenya Lolgisoi, Kenyan activist against female genital mutilation
I grew up in Baringo county in Kenya, a community where female genital mutilation (FGM) was part of the culture and every girl went through as a rite of passage. Even today, FGM is still practiced as before, and it is very sad that girls growing up in the 21st century face the physical, emotional and psychological consequences.
The community has its reasons for practicing FGM; it marks a transition from childhood to maturity, when the girl can be trusted to raise a family. Immediately after the ceremony, the girl is normally forced to drop out of school and start a new life as a wife. The community strongly attributes spiritual purity to FGM, so in order to participate in weddings and other ceremonies, you must have undergone FGM.
When I was in primary school all my friends went through FGM. My friends thought I was just scared to go through it - that I was taking forever to get cut. They would constantly ask why I was not getting cut.
All my older relatives have been cut; I was the first girl in my family to not. My mum had FGM when she was young, and growing up all my older cousins went through it as well. But since I said no, my younger sisters have said no as well.
I first heard about World Vision in 2004, because of some school projects they were doing. I was not involved in child sponsorship, but I started hearing about their alternative rite of passage projects.
My mum is a teacher and World Vision was also working with groups of teachers as part of their work to end FGM in my community. It was at one of those groups that my mum learnt about the health consequences of FGM. Before, they had just considered it a cultural practise and it was an eye opener for them to hear about the negative effects of the ceremony.
After the training, my Mum really encouraged my sisters and I to say no. I feel like my Mum helping me avoid FGM is the best gift she could have ever given me. Seeing girls as young as nine going through all that pain as I grew up was disturbing.
I have four sisters and I am proud that they have all followed in my footsteps. Seeing this training translated to the family is priceless because sooner or later it will translate to the villages and community. How great will that be? However, it has not been easy.
Being one of the girls to say no to FGM, was the beginning of another chapter, and the community that I had grown up in suddenly began to reject me in all sorts of ways. It wasn’t just me either; my mother and father got ridiculed for denouncing FGM.
My grandmother would call us dirty and constantly try to persuade my father to reconsider. She summoned me many times to ask me if I was ready for her to organise the ceremony, but I held true to my decision not to undergo FGM. My father lost respect from his peers in our community; however helpful he can be on matters of education and development, his opinion doesn’t count much in society now for the simple reason that his daughters have not been initiated in the ways of the tribe.
The stigmatisation sometimes makes it feel like you don’t have any options to choose from, and sometimes girls were physically forced.
Men didn't used to marry uncut girls. My friends would call me names. It still happens but right now we have a few men coming forth to support and even marry uncut girls. That is a milestone. They are only a countable number. But that is still something, right?
I started engaging with World Vision around 2007 when I graduated through an alternative rite of passage.
I joined World Vision with other girls who said no to FGM, and trained as a role model for other girls who haven’t made up their minds. Many would join the seminars but then go back because of the ridicule. Other girls were older and wanted to get married, but they would be married only if they had consented to FGM.
Now, I go to the annual events as a role model to the uncut girls to choose a different path. It is incredible to be able to inspire, but sometimes I also receive abuse and hatred. I am passionate about encouraging girls to focus on their education and say no to FGM, but it is not easy. Being ridiculed for refusing to go through it makes you fearful.
I explain how it is possible to choose an alternative rite of passage. FGM isn’t an essential cultural practice as we are made to believe, but is part of a retrogressive culture that pushes girls away. I give my story on saying no to FGM and choosing education and now working in Government, and hopefully girls are inspired that it is possible to make it without the cut.
My favourite thing is meeting girls who have chosen a different path. It is priceless to inspire. I dream of an FGM-free society someday.
World Vision works against female genital mutilation in Kenya and many other countries through child sponsorship and specific child protection projects. You can find out more about child sponsorship in Kenya here.