“Female genital mutilation is a root cause of child marriage, but this is not highlighted enough”, explains Natalie Robi Tingo, who runs workshops to prevent thousands of girls from being cut and married as children. “There are no statistics around this relationship, but once a girl is cut, she is considered a woman and therefore ready for marriage.”
Natalie was born in Kenya’s Kuria community, where female genital mutilation/cutting ( FGM/C) is widespread. In this context, the practice involves removing the outer layers of female genitals and sometimes the clitoris. Girls are made to “rest” for a month and are then married within two years. To wait longer is considered bad luck. It is a practice held in place by community expectations that a girl should be cut before she can marry. Those who remain uncut may be ostracised and lose social protection from the community.
Several Kurian clans who practice FGM/C live along the border of Kenya and Tanzania. Both countries have legally banned the practice, but it continues as those responsible move girls across the border to avoid arrest.
There are many factors driving this. Considerable pressure and entrenched social norms within the community, and financial rewards for parents when their daughters marry are big motivators where poverty rates are high.
Natalie’s workshops with Msichana Empowerment Kuria – which she founded in 2013 – has led her to speak with many girls and women who have experienced FGM/C and child marriage.
“It is an incredibly painful thing to go through”, she says, reflecting on her many years of living and working in the area. “This is a cycle of violence and poverty, and it is time for young people to stand up and speak out.”
Vitally, the workshops are unravelling the links between FGM/C, child marriage and social acceptance.
“There are those among us who want this to stop, but the ridicule women face makes it feel impossible” Natalie says.
If people see that respected community leaders are speaking up publicly and privately, more will feel safe enough to break with tradition. The conversation can then shift.
The workshops are also focused on local authorities. Currently Natalie has noticed a lack of interest in a girl’s future once she has been cut.
“FGM is a hot topic at the moment in Kenya, but child marriage is not as much on the radar”, she explains. “The government has made it illegal for girls to get married here under 18. Yet after FGM, I have heard people argue ‘she is a woman now, so no child marriage has happened.’ This perception needs to change.”
Natalie has been pleasantly surprised with the level of interest and support she is already seeing in conversations in her community to end FGM/C and child marriage.
“Many people are turning up; they seem open and receptive. We have trained some incredible young people from within the community who show 'aptitude and enthusiasm.'"
One day, with enough work, we will find a watershed moment. A turning point. That is what we are doing here. It starts with conversations, it starts when we mobilise others to take responsibility.
Msichana Empowerment Kuria and the Children’s Dignity Forum will be working with young people in Kenya and Tanzania to end FGM/C and child marriage within the cross-border Kuria communities.
This project is made possible thanks to support from players of People’s Postcode Lottery. Funding raised by players is enabling these workshops to take place throughout 2021, preventing thousands of girls from experiencing FGM/C and child marriage.
In the time it has taken to read this article 36 girls under the age of 18 have been married
Each year, 12 million girls are married before the age of 18
That is 23 girls every minute
Nearly 1 every 3 seconds