Armed with a university certificate, Hubbie Hussein Al-Haji returned to her pastoralist community in Garissa, northeastern Kenya, expecting to serve as a veterinary health assistant.
But she was refused the job. "When I came back to Garissa [Northeastern Province capital], I was told you [a woman] cannot treat our animals because you menstruate - it will make our cows perish," she told IRIN.
Al-Haji and a colleague then started a local NGO, WOMANKIND Kenya (WOKIKE) to provide leadership training to women. They also set up a sanctuary for girls at risk of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C).
"Girls are often seen as an object for the pleasure of men," Al-Haji said. In her community, FGM is a highly valued ritual, marking the transition from childhood to womanhood.
At present, the centre is supporting 120 girls aged around six years old because they are at risk of FGM/C from age eight. The girls, most of whom have escaped FGM/C, are enrolled on the recommendation of the government children's department and the community.
"When we started the campaign against FGM, the community turned against us; it was a taboo subject," Al-Haji explained. "The most difficult men to work with were the educated ones who see you [an educated woman] as a challenge."
With time, WOKIKE received the support of local religious leaders, most of whom are Muslim. "[Now] the religious leaders are telling the community that FGM is not a religious obligation," she said.
One success story has strengthened Al-Haji’s resolve to support disadvantaged women in northeastern Kenya. Hafsa, who has been supported by the centre for 14 years, is about to join the University of Nairobi to study pharmacy.
Photo: Ann Weru/IRIN
|A young Somali girl|
"I was rescued from traditional practices like FGM and early marriage," Hafsa told IRIN, adding that she came to the centre from Ijara [a district south of Garissa] at four.
"You are discriminated against either way by the community if you have not been circumcised and by friends in schools outside northeastern if you have been circumcised," Hafsa, who went to a high school in eastern Kenya, said.
At least 32 percent of Kenyan women have undergone FGM/C, according to a report by the Population Council. Among communities such as the Somali, Abagusii, Kuria, Maasai and Samburu, more than 90 percent of women undergo it.
The situation of girls and women in neighbouring Wajir is no better, said Haretha Bulle, a programme manager with the Wajir South Development Association (WASDA).
"In a typical Somali household, the woman's labour is needed for cooking, taking care of small babies, and it is for this [reason] that girls are often pulled out of school," Bulle told IRIN.
A lack of awareness of the value of education and no boarding-school facilities for girls has had adverse effects.
"There is no man who will trust his daughter to go to school [alone] in town without her mother," she noted. "Yet for you to go to high school you have to go to primary [school]."
Many of the girls suffer FGM/C and cannot report the practitioners. "In April, a girl who underwent FGM bled to death. The circumciser was arrested, and then released," she said.
"They are often very old women who sometimes cannot even see," Bulle added. "FGM/C cannot go away overnight. You cannot tell the Somali not to circumcise - though they don't like the Pharaonic type."
Photo: Ann Weru/IRIN
|Hafsa, will soon be studying pharmacy at the University of Nairobi|
The Pharaonic form of FGM, also known as infibulation, involves the total removal of all external sex organs before the vagina is sewn up, leaving a small opening for the passing of menstrual blood.
At home, the girls too are exposed to gender-based violence, but the communities do not see it as a problem, Bulle added.
"If you try to intervene, you end up being accused by the woman herself of interfering," she explained. "[However], I cannot say that the [reported] cases of rape here are alarming."
The bigger problem was lack of support systems. "Care services for abused women in this part of the country are almost non-existent," she said. For instance, if a woman has been raped, "PEP [post-exposure prophylaxis] ... [is] only in the books in this part of the world". PEP services within 72 hours of HIV exposure help to prevent infection.
High divorce rates
In the town of Moyale, along the border with Ethiopia, women and girls were seen as "inferior" to men, assistant chief for Odda location, Rashid Osman, said.
"A woman can get married but at the end when there is a divorce, she does not get her rights," he said. "Here, people seem to marry and divorce anyhow. Consequently, there are many divorcees and neglected children."
Despite awareness-raising, traditional perceptions are hard to change. "You hear men saying that by the end of the next rains, I must marry a fourth wife then I will go for Hajj. You would expect Hajj to be more of a priority," he said.
"Sometimes people marry for very strange reasons... like to take care of the cows since the town is growing and herders have to go further out to the fields."
Across northeastern Kenya, said Rashid Karayu, chairman of the Global Integrated Development Programme, a local NGO, women were more disempowered than in other areas.
"The perception from the people and even the women themselves is that they are inferior," he told IRIN. "Even in school committees, women who are best placed to speak for their children often shy away."