Salvation from Female Genital Mutilation
Words by Nandini Tanya Lallmon
Image: Pictured on the Left is Christine Ghati Alfons. Pictured on the Right is Nandini Tanya Lallmon.
Not all heroes wear capes. Christine Ghati Alfons is the perfect illustration of this saying. This 28-year-old was born and raised in the rural Kuria community, Migori County, Kenya. Although Kenyan law penalized female genital mutilation (FGM) in 2011, customary law tends to prevail in the Kuria community. In her village, the norm is for young girls between the ages twelve and fifteen to undergo FGM. This is a procedure whereby the clitoris and labia are cut off using razor blades. In particularly severe cases, the entire external genitalia is cut off and sewn back up except for a hole the size of a matchstick. The procedure is carried out in an open field every alternate year during ‘cutting season,’ which lasts over six weeks during November and December. The ceremony is considered as a ‘purification’ rite of passage for young girls, who then became suitable for marriage. The girl is then offered as a wife for a bride price of goats, cows, and camels paid to her family. The bride price is higher for cut girls and it also increases a family’s status within their community.
During her naive childhood years, Christine was actually looking forward to the day when she would undergo FGM. She saw how older girls were paraded openly in the streets, wearing special hats as a sign of their ‘newly-acquired purity’, while community members sang and danced on public roads in celebration. Young Christine was longing for the day when it would be her turn to be centre of attention.
However, at the age of eleven, she completely changed her mind after the visit of a social worker to her school. She learned that FGM is practiced for non-medical reasons, often with no anaesthesia and no disinfectant, and causes severe pain, bleeding, and swelling. She also found out that girls run the risk of being infected with a sexually transmitted disease since, in certain cases, the same blade is used on different girls. Additionally, she discovered that, though the scars may heal, the wounds often tear open during childbirth. She understood that circumcised women torture themselves throughout their lives with physical and psychological pain associated with being physically restrained against their will and having one of the most sensitive parts of their body brutally cut off.
That afternoon, she came back home and told her mother that she did not want to undergo the FGM procedure. Not only did her mother support her decision, but she revealed to her that her late father, who had passed away when she was eight, had also wanted for his daughters to never be cut. In fact, he was killed by traditionalists because he had broken a taboo by advocating against FGM in the Kuria community. He had travelled outside of his village and had seen the health benefits of not undergoing FGM. Her father’s story further strengthened Christine’s resolve to pursue his legacy.
Soon, she turned twelve and community members as well as extended family expected her to undergo the cut. Groups of men, some armed, went door-to-door harassing the families of uncircumcised girls. To protect her from being snatched away, her mother locked her inside of the house while she went to work. Christine stayed under total lockdown throughout three entire cutting seasons until she outgrew the cutting age. Although she was relieved to have overcome the FGM procedure, she was ostracized when she went back to school. She faced taunts from village elders, who condoned the practice, as they were paid commissions by the cutters carrying out the procedure. Her family was bullied by community members who were outraged at her ‘impurity’. They seized her family’s land and cattle, which were their source of subsistence. Consequently, she had no means to cover school expenses and had to spend her days alone at home.
To overcome her loneliness, Christine sought refuge in her local church under the pastor’s tutelage. A visitor from California spotted her on the prayer benches and asked the pastor about her. Upon hearing about her financial woes, he volunteered to sponsor her school fees and upkeep through her remaining four years of secondary school. She scored straight A’s during her final year, becoming the first student to ever achieve such high grades in Migori County. Her fellow villagers now wanted to associate with her, as she had seemingly redeemed herself in their eyes. They even helped her raise funds for her tertiary education fees. These funds were instead used to pay for her siblings’ school fees, given that she was also granted a Higher Education Loan, which allowed her to graduate in Actuarial Sciences from Karatina University.
Christine forsake the promise of a well-paying career to found her own non-governmental organisation, called Safe Engage Foundation in 2015. Today, alongside other volunteers, she runs a shelter for young girls, where they can stay safely during the cutting season. Thereafter, she reunites them with their parents, and educates the latter about the harmful effects of FGM. She also provides mentorship sessions in schools on FGM and child marriage. Additionally, she teaches handicraft to women that they can generate income by selling hand-made articles, thereby emancipating financially. Her firm resolve and relentless efforts have garnered her the attention of several international organisations that have solicited her expertise. Indeed, she is a member of the Goalkeepers platform at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a Board Member at Msichana Empowerment Kuria, and a co-facilitator at Orchid Project. In her role of executive member holding the thematic portfolio of Child, Early and Forced Marriage at the Commonwealth Youth Gender and Equality Network, she is pushing forward the #Reform53 campaign to advocate against discriminatory laws that defer to customary laws with regards to FGM.
Christine’s eight years of hard labour have borne their fruits in Kuria: the ostracisation of uncut women has faltered; politicians have voiced out public support for the end of FGM; and there is increased general awareness about the health risks of FGM. However, with the COVID-19 pandemic, her work has suffered from major setbacks. Many parents see school closures as the perfect opportunity to get their daughters cut. Owing to the social distancing regulations, the latter have little to no support, as they have almost no access to social workers and the FGM shelters they could escape to are closed. Undeterred, Christine keeps fighting tooth and nail against FGM. Given the low internet penetration rate in her area, she is campaigning on wheels in remote areas to sensitise residents about the dangers of both COVID-19 and FGM. She has diversified her operations to include free distribution of health care packs including menstrual hygiene products to underprivileged women and girls. She has her magnanimous heart set on building a resource centre for Kuria women and has even earmarked a plot of land as construction site.
Another highly anticipated moment for Christine is the month of August 2020 when she is expected to experience the joys of motherhood for the first time, alongside her husband of two years, whose family also stands against FGM. Unfortunately, not all women are married into such supportive families. Indeed, it is common practice for in-laws to instruct midwives to seize the opportunity of such pure an act as childbirth to commit such vile a crime as FGM. Hence, Christine avows to give other women a new lease on life, while preparing to bring new life to the world.