A few weeks after Abigael Taki’s mother was buried, her father and stepmother came up with a plan to marry her off.
First, the nine-year-old needed to be circumcised to usher her into womanhood as per the age-old customs of her Maasai community. Her “suitor” was a 60-year-old man.
That did not happen. The village pastor got wind of the plan and whisked Abigael off to the Tasaru Rescue Centre. The shelter in Narok County in Kenya’s Rift Valley houses girls below the age of 18, who are rescued or run away from home because they face the risk of female genital mutilation (FGM) and child marriage that makes it impossible for them to attend school. The Kenyan law prohibits both practices.
“My pastor said I needed to leave because my father was planning something bad. He then brought me to the centre and I went to school for the first time,” said Abigael.
The shelter is run by the Tasaru Ntomonok Initiative with support from donors. The initiative also runs the Eskenlei Girls Boarding School where rescued girls are enrolled. The school, which is open to the local community, has 82 girls currently.
Abigael is now in Standard Five. A maths and science enthusiast, she hopes to become a doctor.
Sion Kasikwa, also in Standard Five, shares a similar story.
A last born in a polygamous family where all her sisters had undergone the cut at an early age, it meant she would also have to go through the ritual.
Like in Abigael’s case, the local pastor told her about the Tasaru Rescue Centre.
It however took some further convincing from an uncle whose children had avoided the cut and gone to school — unlike Sion’s siblings — before she agreed to leave home.
“A week earlier, my father had told me a ceremony was being organised to recognise me as a girl,” said the 11-year-old. “The thought of it did not excite me.”
Eskenlei school is currently being supported by The Secular Society (TSS) — a US-based not-for-profit organisation that advances the interests of women and the arts.
The organisation caters for the girls’ expenses and staff salaries. It also caters for the expenses of girls who make it to the university. Abigael and Sion are among 12 girls who already have university scholarships.
The founder and director of the Tasaru Ntomonok Initiative Agnes Pareiyo said the girls are first screened at the government-run child welfare and protection office before they are taken in.
“This helps us to establish if their case is genuine, and avoid parents taking us to court claiming that we kidnapped their children,” said Ms Pareiyo.
She said the law banning FGM is difficult to enforce in rural areas, and in most cases it is ignored.
“The local government lacks the political willpower to enforce it,” said Ms Pareiyo. “Most politicians do not want to fight FGM for fear of losing votes.”
A 2014 USAid national demographic and health survey estimates that some 11 per cent of girls in Kenya have been circumcised, while nearly 23 per cent of women aged 20-24, were married before age 18.
In remote Maasai land, it is estimated that only one in every 100 girls is able to avoid the cut, earning scorn from their community.
Ms Pareiyo’s passion to help the girls in her community is derived from her experience.
“At age 14 while in high school, I met girls from communities that did not practise FGM. It occurred to me that one could actually mature into adulthood without undergoing the cut,” she said.
When she went back home and explained to her parents that she did not want to undergo FGM, only her father sided with her.
“My mother was disappointed. She said this is how things are; it is our culture. If you are not cut, who will you be? Would we call you a girl or a woman? Do you want to remain a child all your life? Who will marry you? How can we accept you into adult rituals when you remain merely a child?”
Pressure from her mother and peers influenced Ms Pareiyo’s decision to undergo the cut. This year, she vied to become a member of parliament but lost during the nominations.
“I wanted to go to parliament to challenge the status quo by pushing for laws that would help curb harmful cultures,” she said. “The local administration supports the fight against FGM verbally but a number of officials continue to endorse the practice privately in their villages.”
There are, however, an increasing number of girls shunning FGM and early marriage for school and careers.
“The progress is slow but encouraging,” said Ms Pareiyo. “If we bring up such girls, we can fight, it will take years but we shall eventually win this battle.”
The Tasaru initiative holds an alternative rite of passage for the girls through training, after which they become full members of society.
“Several meetings are held where parents and relatives of the girls are educated on the adverse effects of FGM and on the law against the practice, eventually leading to a reconciliation ceremony,” said Ms Pareiyo.
She added: “The girls are monitored closely by area chiefs and we pay them regular visits to assess their progress both at home and in school.”
If reconciliation efforts fail, the girls continue staying at the rescue centre.
According to the director, Africa Office for Equality Now Faiza Mohamed, measures are being taken to enforce laws against FGM on the continent at individual country level.
Kenya for example, has an anti-FGM Board and an anti-FGM Unit under the Director of Public Prosecutions, which are stepping up efforts to investigate cases and enforce the law. They are also educating communities on the dangers of FGM.
The African Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa prohibits FGM, and this is being promoted through public awareness and prevention programmes.
“FGM has been recognised as a severe human rights abuse that damages girls and women physically and psychologically,” said Ms Mohamed.
“Our work is to protect and promote the rights of women and girls by combining grassroots activism with international, regional and national legal advocacy.”
This story is supported by International Women’s Media Foundation.