Over 200 million women across the globe have stood tall to tell their painful stories. Their victorious voices, their solidarity in transforming their pain into purpose and their undying hope of creating a world free from Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). With many stories told of the survivors, Vice Versa Global brings you an exclusive interview with Isnino Tono. She is not only a survivor, but a person who actively participated in the actual act of the cut.
Each year, millions of girls and women around the world are at risk of undergoing FGM. It is a harmful practice that intentionally alters the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. While the customs and traditions that perpetuate it vary from community to community, the procedure is generally carried out between infancy and the age of 15. It has serious socio-economic, physical, emotional, sexual and health consequences, including death. The world at large has demystified the horrifying consequences of this brutal practice. For years it has been fought by organizations globally and even at the grassroots levels, and in countries like Kenya it has been declared illegal.
“This is not an easy task that we are undertaking. In order to achieve this goal, we must initiate community based programs that are culturally sensitive, and that will encourage a change in social norms. I am confident that we are on the right track, and that we will achieve zero FGM in Kenya by the year 2022,” H.E President Uhuru Kenyatta, President of the Republic of Kenya declared. This was during the official launch of a campaign to eradicate FGM in Kenya on November 8, 2019. Two years later, and with only a few months left to 2022, is this going to be a reality?
Tana River County
I travelled to Tana River County, a county in the former Coast Province of Kenya. It is named after the Tana River that passes through it and consists of multi-cultural communities. The rate of development and literacy levels are really low here. This might explain why the majority of the population here still embrace their traditions. It is one of the counties in Kenya where FGM is believed to be rampant. Mine was an intense curiosity to figure out just how far we are as a country. With numerous campaigns and advocacies against the practice, education and immense awareness, is there any impact? Is there any change? Is there hope?
I met up with Isnino Tono, a fifty one year old mother of four in her home village of Malakoteni, Garsen. She is known by many as an FGM activist. She is the eye of the government and reports any case she comes across of anyone who intends to have their daughter cut. She attends all meetings meant to empower and educate women in the fight against it. Had it not been for the interview we were having, she would have been attending one convened by the Caritas organization. What you may not know is that Isnino has been a staunch believer of this deadly practice. She has participated in the cutting of more than 50 girls in this very village.
“My name is Isnino, from the Munyoyaya tribe. A tribe that still practices female genital mutilation. In our tribe, the cut is done using a knife, not even a razor blade. A knife that is used to cut all girls present at the session, be it twenty, fifty, you name it!” The ratio of one knife to countless girls already sounds terrifying to me.
When she was growing up, undergoing the cut was something every girl looked forward to. It was actually taboo to play with a girl who had not gone through the cut. They were even given names to identify them as outcasts. “There is this time as a very young girl, I had gone to play with my mates, and they had all been cut except for me. I faced rejection as most of them abused me, stating that I was dirty and unfit to be in their company. I felt so bad,” she said. That was the first experience that made her realize the ‘importance’ of the cut.
Later on, her grandma sat her down to explain in detail why they valued the practice. “She told me that if a girl is not cut, no man would want to marry her. She would become a harlot and the community would eventually disown her.”
She vividly recalls how she felt the night before her ‘special’ day. She was nine years old then. “I was anxious, scared and happy, all in equal measure. I didn’t sleep. I was very eager for it since to me it was a very noble thing. All my anxieties were cut short when I finally felt the knife. It was the most painful thing I had ever experienced. I really cried that day.” It is not just the pain, she quantifies to me the amount of blood she lost and admits just how deadly the practice is. She seemed to be the oldest of the girls she underwent the cut with since most were between the ages of six and seven. “I remember one girl who was cut immediately after me. As she struggled to withstand the pain from the cut, the knife unfortunately cut beyond the intended area. She later developed complications and was unable to even pass urine. This called for another cut to rectify the urine passage. She truly suffered. The sad part is that there is no going to the hospital, we only rely on herbal medication,” she narrated.
If you can’t beat them join them, an old adage that Isnino seemed to have applied. “Even before I got married, I began assisting the old woman in my village in the cutting ceremony. The process requires a combined effort since it is not easy to hold a girl down and cut her single handedly. On many occasions, I would grab the girl and cover both her eyes and mouth. This is to prevent her from seeing the knife penetrate her skin and from screaming respectively. A lot of strength is required at this particular time. Some would squirm so much because obviously, the cut is very painful. Remember, there is no anesthetic drug given and so the girl struggles a lot. For some, I would even sit on their chests and force them on the ground just to ensure the cut is successful and only the intended part is cut,” she explained and even demonstrated it to me. This is something she has done for close to 20 years and to countless number of girls.
Realizing the Consequences and Regrets
“It is after I got married and had my first baby, that I realized that my scar was a recurring wound. I had complications with deliveries for all my four pregnancies. Since I couldn’t have sufficient opening to allow for the passage of the baby, it meant cut after cut for each delivery. It was a painful experience that I couldn’t bare anymore, so I stopped after my fourth born,” she lamented as she fought back tears. She was blessed with only one daughter. Sadly, as a staunch believer of the knife ‘rite of passage’, she subjected her to it too. “It was the worst experience I have ever gone through. My daughter was cut at the tender age of 10, and she got really severe wounds that took so long to heal. I was so scared and for the first time in my life I cursed this practice.”
She introduces me to her sister-in-law during our interview, the wife to her brother. She broke from the norm and endured all criticisms in their village by defying the culture. She was the first woman to refuse to take her daughter for the cut despite condemnations from people in the village, including her own mother. Hawa Mohamed, who was bold enough to be unbowed, is a happy woman today. “I don’t like talking about my FGM experience because it still haunts me to date. What I promised myself was that if God were to bless me with baby girls, I would never subject them to what I went through,” she tells me. Hawa’s first born daughter is an age mate to Isnino’s, but she never underwent the cut and for that was criticized a lot. “When she was still young and mostly during playtime with her friends, whenever she had a misunderstanding with anyone, they would really abuse her. This was due to the fact that she had not undergone the practice. I would comfort her and assure her that she was fine. I told her that anyone who tried to intimidate her would be taken to the police,” she says. Her daughter is now married and with children, something that was once believed to be impossible.
“You see, these are some of the things that made me realize that this practice was a hoax and has no benefits,” says Isnino as she refers to Hawa’s sentiments. “We were told that one would never get married yet she is now married and with children. She never experienced any severe complications during birth like most women who have undergone the cut. Had I known this earlier, let alone my daughter, even I wouldn’t have agreed to go through the cut. We have made innocent girls suffer and shed a lot of blood. This is sinning. May God forgive us!” she curses vehemently. This was a perfect case study for Isnino and the people of this community. From the campaigns and the education they were being given, it really worked to help change their mindset.
Turning a New Leaf
With numerous campaigns, advocacies, education and awareness about female genital mutilation, women like Hawa and Isnino have been enlightened. They now agree that indeed this practice is a thing of the past and was probably a way of enslaving women. Young girls in this community have been taught about their rights and the dangers of FGM. “In this village and the neighboring ones, young girls are aware that FGM is illegal. If you try threatening them with it, they will report you to the police,” said Isnino.
I am introduced to two young girls yet again by Isnino, Michi, an eight year old and Mwanadia, a fourteen year old. These two girls call her grandma. “These two are my granddaughters. Years back, finding a girl in their age bracket that was not cut was impossible. Yet as you can see, none of them is cut, and the same applies to most girls of their age around here,” she says with so much confidence and pride.
“Right now I can’t stand seeing any girl undergo the cut. It is something that I strongly condemn. We have been educated and we completely understand the consequences. No mother would wish to subject her daughter to such danger knowingly. We are grateful to have organizations that work tirelessly in fighting the vice and we have collaborated so well in running these campaigns. We now have even religious leaders who have joined the fight to ensure we eradicate FGM completely. With strict rules from the government and the order to jail anyone who participates in the cut, cases have tremendously gone down. In this village, for the past three years or so, I have not heard of any family that has subjected their daughters to female genital mutilation,” she concluded with a sigh of relief.
Pictures: Cynthia Omondi