Florence Lomariwo’s life-long crusade against female genital mutilation, or FGM, started with her own narrow escape.
Her father had nine wives and a total of 77 children. Florence’s mother, his ninth wife, had six children to raise. She was often unable to provide for their basic needs of food and clothing, let alone their education.
In fact, out of a total of 38 girls in her father’s family, Florence was the only one to complete her education.
“My father did not believe that education was necessary for girls,” says Florence. “I had to sneak to school and return unnoticed. One day, I forgot to change out of my school uniform and my father saw me. He was angry and beat me up for bringing disgrace to the family.”
It was only after her father’s death that Florence began to openly attend school, to the disgust of her elder brothers and the community at large. Only her mother supported her educational pursuits.
When she turned 9, Florence’s caregivers planned the FGM ceremony for her. This brutal ritual involves the partial or complete cutting away of a girl’s external genitalia. It became illegal in Kenya in 2011. According to the latest Kenya Demographic and Health Survey of 2014, the rate of FGM is declining (from 27% in 2008 to 21% in 2014). But that is still far too many.
FGM goes hand-in-hand with another common issue in Kenya — early marriage.
FGM, the cultural rite of passage from girlhood to womanhood, has traditionally signalled a girl’s readiness for marriage. Countrywide, approximately 26% of girls are married before age 18, and 6% are married by age 15. Florence learned that after she underwent FGM, she would be married.
“An old man from a neighbouring village had approached my family to arrange a marriage with me,” says Florence. “He wanted me to be his fourth wife.”
At the time, Florence was in the third grade. Her oldest brother, now head of the family, had already accepted half of the customary “bride price” from the man, which included camels, cows and goats. According to tradition, after the ritual cutting, she would become the old man’s property.
So Florence took a desperate step. She ran away from home.
“I did not want to be married early because it would shatter all my dreams,” Florence says. “I ran away from home, living with well-wishers and teachers who supported my desire to complete my education and make something of myself.”
Her determination paid off. After finishing secondary school, Florence enrolled in a teacher’s college and later graduated with a degree in education. She then married the man of her own choice — a privilege few women her age knew. Now, Florence had the credentials and platform she needed to effect change.
Florence now runs a school and rescue centre for girls who escaped FGM and early marriage.
The primary school in the town of Chemolingot, Kenya, is no ordinary school. In addition to educating local children, Chemolingot Primary School is a rescue centre for girls saved from FGM and early marriage. Girls who are scheduled for FGM will flee to the school for safety. Other young girls who have already undergone the procedure will sometimes run away from their “husbands” to the school for safety. Boys who are victims of child labour and violence also seek refuge at the centre.
Florence has been instrumental in transforming the centre into a boarding school, securing funding from various sources so that these vulnerable children have somewhere to stay.
Today, through Florence’s dedication and hard work, Chemolingot Primary School is home to more than 150 young girls who have been rescued from FGM and early marriage. Among the girls who have found refuge at the primary school in the past, 11 are currently attending public universities and colleges and 49 are attending various high schools around the country.
But Florence’s activism is not without risk.
Some men from the community don’t want the status quo to change.
Recently, an angry group of men wielding canes confronted Florence. They had come to claim the wife promised by her family to a member of the group. She was a 14-year-old girl who had sought protection at the school. The mob accused Florence of undermining their culture and threatened to teach her a lesson. Thankfully, the other teachers protected her, and the police arrived in time to prevent any violence.
Still, despite the danger, Florence remains committed to her mission.
Now Florence is helping expand protection to even more children.
In 2016, Florence’s church, African Inland Church Chemolingot, partnered with Compassion to launch a child development centre. As an outstanding champion of children, Florence became the chair of the committee overseeing the centre. Now there are 252 local children in the programme.
Through the centre, Florence is helping ensure that the children in her community receive ongoing education about their rights. She is also making sure parents are provided with training about the dangers of FGM.
“We take a zero-tolerance stance on child abuse, and we have made it clear to all our children’s caregivers that action will be taken against anyone who undermines the rights of a child,” says Florence.
What’s more, caregivers of children signed commitments saying their children can attend school and will not undergo harmful cultural practices. In the future, as the registered children grow older, the centre plans to provide a Bible-based alternate rite of passage programme.
“We understand that the key to dealing with this problem is continuous education,” says Florence. “We envision a future in which there will be a significant drop in the number of children that suffer FGM and early marriage.”
Now, the little girls in her care are benefiting from Florence’s passion and dedication. There is an undeniable wave of change sweeping Chimolingot. In some cases, the school enrolment of girls is doubling and tripling previous enrolment numbers. Still, there is much more that needs to be done, and Florence will keep fighting. She knows that the next generation of women need her voice and courage to continue paving the way.
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A version of this blog was originally published by our friends at Compassion International.