Joy, jubilation and happiness filled the atmosphere at Taranganya Girls Boarding Primary School as a total of 184 girls who had been held for the past five weeks after fleeing FGM were finally released home.
Young girls receive certificates of completion for the life skills they learned at Kubweye Rescue Center, Mabera Sub County. Photo by Polycarp Ochieng
Similar ecstatic moods were experienced at Kubweye Girls Secondary School, where another 180 girls were housed after escaping the truck.
Full of energy to meet their long-lost family members, the girls couldn’t hide their joy after having the opportunity to meet their loved ones and adding to the fact that ‘cuts’ were done away with and it was now safe to go home.
15-year-old Miriam Bokhe says returning home was the best feeling despite having both her parents visit her. However, that doesn’t do anything about the fact that the girls gained a lot during their time in the rescue camps.
“I enjoyed my stay here. I learned a lot about the dangers of FGM and also acquired other personal skills like baking cakes and others,” says Miriam with a big smile.
At the Taranganya Rescue Center, young girls were given a rare opportunity to learn various skills that kept them busy, making them feel less like they were being rescued from the unforgiving world they lived in.
In addition, they were made aware of the dangers of FGM to girls and the future impact of cutting back.
“We now realize that if you get a cut you risk losing a lot of blood during childbirth and you can have difficulties at the same time,” says Alice Mwita, a 12-year-old girl from Kuria West.
Mabera Deputy County Commissioner Miss Joy Wambua oversees the release of girls back to their parents. She said she worked hand-in-hand with chiefs in the area to ensure the girls’ safety. Photo by Polycarp Ochieng
However, in a number of cases the girls were unsure about the dynamics at home, how their parents would receive them or whether their parents would welcome them home as they had fled female circumcision.
Elizabeth Nyawiri, a 15-year-old student at Guitembe Secondary School, cried that her parents would not take her back nor would they take her back to school because she left against her will.
Elizabeth had not spoken to her parents during the time she was in camp and she was concerned that the situation would be welcome on her part.
Afraid of being taken back there, she chose instead to go to the police, where her parents would be called to resolve the issue.
A number of girls received no contact or visits from home during their time in the camps. This made her feel the anger or disappointment her parents must have felt for her, which went against cultural norms.
The rescue camp facilitators also faced hard times, as some parents were often called upon to deride and ridicule their efforts to eradicate the vice.
Rose Ghati, a moderator at the Taranganya Girls Rescue Center, complained that some parents were charging money for their children to stay at the centers.
Tobias Marwa from the Zinduka program and coordinator of the project warns that in extreme cases where parents reject their girls, the law will be followed and those parents will have to be reprimanded.
He said that children under the age of 18 are under the protection of the government and whenever there is an act that compromises their safety or protection, the law will take its course.
As schools reopen, gender actors are competing for time to reintegrate girls who escaped female genital mutilation into their homes.
As early as December 2022, all four Kuria clans in both Kenya and Tanzania practiced female genital mutilation, with large numbers of girls fleeing to sanctuaries to avert the ‘cut’.
James Omondi, the Kuria West subdistrict children’s officer, said they have contacted the girls’ parents and the community to see that the girls are taken back to their families so they can go to school.
“So far, after almost six weeks of school holidays, the circumcision process is winding down and there is a fear of underground exercises. We are checking this before they are reintegrated,” said Omondi.
He said that 14 Tanzanian girls who were in rescue centers after traveling to the country to escape the “cut” had already been taken to the immigration department and crossed the border again with the help of security, government and gender activists were integrated.
“While schools have not yet opened in Kenya, schools across the border have reopened for the first semester and we have been reaching out to our colleagues from across the border to end the vice,” Omondi said.
Miss Joy Wambua, Deputy District Commissioner of Mabera, said she worked hand-in-hand with chiefs in the area to ensure the safety of these girls.
She added that the parents signed a statement to back up their agreement not to harm, mutilate or physically abuse the girls if they escape to rescue centers for safety.
Kuria West Police Chief Cleti Kimaiyo said she will remain on the alert and pursue rescued girls as they return to their families and continue to work hard to make more arrests.
“Although we have only arrested parents and guardians, we are still on the hunt for circumcisers who have crossed the border and we will bring them to justice,” Kimaiyo said.
Migori County gender activists have called for the construction of a rescue center in the minority Kuria community as over 500 girls escaped female genital mutilation during the festive season.
Benter Odhiambo, Micontrap-Kenya coordinator, said a standard rescue center should have a police post, hospital, counseling center and schools, an infrastructure that is lacking in both Kenya and Tanzania.
Activists have called on the police and justice system to expedite prosecutions and sentencing in cases involving those arrested for FGM, to serve as an example for those planning to carry out the act now and in the future.
By Polycarp Ochieng and George Agimba