The past few days in Kenya have been unforgettable. I visited Ilbissil with humanitarian photographer Cate Cameron who joined me after completing a separate expedition with P&G’s Children’s Safe Drinking Water program. Ilbissil is located in the Kajiado District and it’s where we funded our first water well. The purpose of my work there currently is focused around a community of Maasai girls who are referred to as “Rescued Girls.” These girls have been rescued from early marriage (relatively 9 years of age and up) and have undergone Female Genital Circumcision or FGM. Although FGM has been outlawed in Kenya since 2003 and early marriage and child abuse is illegal in Kenya, for some tribes such as the Maasai, these practices are deep-rooted traditions, especially in the most rural areas.
Alongside Cate, I interviewed 9 girls. As children, they had been forced into marriages with much older adult men, circumcised with no anesthetics and many were treated as slaves while being beaten continuously. Beaten was described to me as, “Whipped all over the body with a stick. Such as a large walking stick.”
With time, Cate and I will present the full story and photography to the world in a carefully planned manner, but for the sake of this blog, let’s begin with some awareness that needs to start now. I ask that you please not turn away from this. I know it’s uncomfortable, but we can’t pretend these things don’t exist when they are very real and are happening now.
We spent three days with these girls. The first day we sat together as a group along with volunteers who helped rescue them and a leader in the community. We began with introductions and our purpose for being there…to become more educated into the journey of a girl who undergoes FGM and early marriage and to help bring awareness to others about them through their personal stories. We also explained that we were there to give them a voice and to help spread their message to the world. As each girl introduced herself and her unique experience, every story was nothing short of horrifying. While I maintained my composure, it was hard to believe they made it out of their situations alive.
As a social worker, I first explain why I’m there and let them know I would be asking questions about their lives. I make it clear that at no time do they have to answer any of my questions. I explain that if they don’t want to speak about a particular subject, they can simply say so and I will skip to the next question. I also ask the girls for permission to write down what they say, and in this case, we explained Cate’s role as a photographer and asked for permission to capture their images. Of the girls I interviewed, one did not want to speak about one particular subject: her marriage. She said she hated to think or talk of her marriage because it disgusted her. A couple of other girls appeared shy at times and when I sensed discomfort, I moved the conversation along.
For the most part, the girls had plenty to say and I sensed an empowerment come over them as they told their stories. We also found that right away, the girls welcomed us. We learned this from our initial meeting when one girl in particular appeared very shy and she would not make any type of eye contact. However, when we ended our time together and exited the room, Cate noticed her standing outside by herself. Together we walked over to her to give her a more personal greeting. That’s when we witnessed her beautiful smile and she shared with us, “The girls here welcome you.”
The bulk of the interviews were generally conducted in the following order: (1) Life before Female Genital Circumcision, (2) The day of and experience of FGM, (3) Life before early marriage, (4) The day of and experience of early marriage, (5) The day they escaped or were rescued, (6) Life now, (7) What they want to say to the world and to adults who hurt children, and (8) Any questions they had for us.
While their words varied, we were struck by their remarkable resilience and strength. Each inspired us differently and deeply with their extraordinary capacity to continue believing, hoping and striving for healthy, productive lives. At times, I found myself asking the girls for a favor. I asked them to please not allow anything negative that anyone has ever said to them to keep them from seeing their true value. I assured them they are full of beauty and are precious beings regardless of how anyone had previously referred to them through words or actions.
The following is only one of many horrific stories, but due to the nature of the connection I had with this particular girl, I’m choosing to share a portion here. In this instance, I am changing her name to “Rebecca.”
Rebecca is barely a teen. She was sent to live with a woman and her husband due to her mother dying and other circumstances. This woman physically abused her and then that woman’s husband, who was in his 40′s, sexually abused her and consequently she became pregnant. Because it’s a curse to be pregnant and uncircumcised, there was an arrangement made between this man and Rebecca’s father to circumcise her. This act took place weeks before she gave birth to the child.
The surgery was done with a razor, no anesthetic. At the time of labor (again, only a few weeks later), she gave birth alone because she was still looked on as potentially cursed. Shortly after, she was rescued from the situation and now she and her baby are living with the volunteers who rescued her.
When I first met Rebecca in the group setting, she stood out because when I asked the girls if they had any questions, she was the only one who did. She didn’t only have one question but three. Her questions were heart wrenching, but I was in “social worker mode” which to me means a variety of factors such as: Trying to stick to asking open-ended questions, being sensitive to the situation, listening attentively, being honest and age appropriate and not allowing my emotions to get the best of me.
The following are her questions and my answers to them:
Rebecca: Will you be coming back to work here?
Me: Yes. I will come back to spend more time with you but I have to return home in early February. Cate will be returning home after this visit.
Rebecca: My case is in court right now, will you be helping my court case?
Me: I doubt I would be involved in your court case because I don’t live here and I don’t work for the court or know any of the officials involved in your case.
Rebecca: Do children where you come from go through what we have gone through?
Me: Unfortunately, some children where I come from are taken advantage of and sexually abused by adult men. Some adults also physically abuse children. The difference is that where I come from, cutting a girl is not practiced and early marriage between a much older adult man and a little girl is not common.
Although she had some strong questions, I had to sit very close to her to even hear her ask them. She spoke in such a low tone of voice. While I was answering her questions, I saw that she was holding back tears. I think just asking the questions alone took everything out of her. She was advocating for herself in front of a group of people. It took a lot of courage for her to do that. So I asked her and the volunteers for permission to hug her. Everyone nodded in agreement and she then buried herself in my shoulder and cried.
The following day, we began our in-depth interviews. At this point I had interviewed about 6 girls and Rebecca was next in line. Rebecca was very descriptive and anxious to tell her full story. A volunteer held her child during the interview and towards the end, Rebecca casually took hold of the baby to nurse it. Although she has the sweetest smile in the world, halfway through the interview, I noticed again that she was holding back tears. It seemed as if her eyes were going to explode, filling with tears.
She spoke of her body being a temple of God and when someone abused it, they were abusing God’s body. At that point, I felt the need to pause the interview for a moment. It’s the rainy season here in Kenya, and so I chose to use the rain symbolically as an example of healing. I told her that during a rain, you could see that things are cleansed and washed and after a rain we often see a rainbow. On that particular day, there was a double rainbow in the sky. In my opinion, I see this as God showing us a healing process through crying and while the rain may come down, we can see crying as a cleansing source. This gave her full permission to cry and she could view this as nothing to be ashamed of. She could let it all out and let other things in. Beautiful things.
Once I gave her permission to cry, my voice cracked so I said to her that I would share tears with her not only because what she’s been through is so heartbreaking, but also because I want her to know it was okay. So we took a moment and cried together and then continued on with the interview.
Never before had I done that while interviewing a child. Any good social worker will tell you that while it’s okay to feel emotions, those emotions are best let out on our own personal time. Not only do we have a job to accomplish, as an adult, we need to be a pillars of strength for the child. However, if there was ever an instance where there was an exception, I think this was it.
Telling the Story
These girls are true survivors and it will take more than a blog to tell their stories of courage and perseverance. I plan to continue telling this story. I will touch more on what the girls go through when being circumcised and married off at an early age. I will also speak about their message to the world. I will say now that what they most want is to go to school. Most of them can’t, however, because they don’t have the means for school fees. Secondary school means boarding school, which equals education and complete living arrangements within the school.
The rescued girls who are attending school are on a scholarship the school sets up for “Rescued Girls.” However, those funds are limited and will eventually run out. School is not only important for the education they crave, but also for the community amongst other girls their age who are simply living as girls their age. Also, and this is very important, school means protection because the school upholds the law. They protect the girls against predators and come down hard on those who practice abusive traditions.
We have set up an online link with our fiscal partner for school programs pertaining to these children. The funds that I am raising will go towards education, supporting the volunteers who rescue these girls, and clean water projects. It’s the beginning of the Holiday season and I am hopeful that this year I can help direct people to give a gift that can change a girl’s life forever.
Photography by Cate Cameron, Changents.com