August is when Nchoo Ngochila would normally be gearing up for the traditional female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) season in her Ilchamus community in Kenya's Rift Valley Province.
"I would introduce myself and market my skills to the parents, I would convince them to hire me when the mutilating season came," she told IRIN. "In a day I would cut an average of 10 girls in a village, and would operate in two villages each day."
Ngochila, once a well-respected FGM/C practitioner, charged about US$22 per girl, a healthy income by the standards of the minority Ilchamus community, which comprises just 40,000 people mainly dependent on subsistence agriculture and fishing in Lake Baringo.
"At heart, I felt the pain of watching girls weep as I cut them, but I needed money to pay school fees for my sons," she added.
This year, however, Ngochila will spend her time trying to convince her community the practice should be abandoned. About a year ago, a campaign by the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) urged FGM/C practitioners in the area to put down their razors and campaign for women's rights in their communities.
"I was invited for training in our village, they talked about the suffering a girl [experiences] while undergoing FGM, and the way the practice denied women their rights," she said. "I felt so guilty that I cancelled all the bookings I had for August last year; instead I went to the same parents and tried to convince them against FGM."
A hard sell
Of the 30 bookings she had already made in 2010, just two changed their minds about having their daughters cut.
Ngochila found herself on the wrong side of elders and other members of the Ilchamus community; when she tried to convince other practitioners to give up the trade, they accused her of trying to ruin their business.
Local officials estimate that more than 50 percent of Ilchamus girls and women have undergone FGM/C.
The campaign to dissuade traditional practitioners from cutting girls continues, and local women's leader Winnie Mengiri says 15 practitioners from Marighat Division and 20 from Mukutani Division - where many Ilchamus people live - claimed to have been reformed because of various campaigns.
Today, Nodasimi Parteneu, a friend of Ngochila's, struggles to make ends meet, but is determined not to return to performing FGM/C for money.
"At first I thought it was good that Nchoo had abandoned the practice - she was my main competitor - but I later reasoned her way and put down my razor," she said. "Sometimes I get nightmares as I recall how a girl died after she bled following FGM which I had done, but I know God will give me grace to forget those memories."
But Mengiri says the high income of the practitioners often means their positions within the community do not stay vacant for long.
"Younger women are now mutilating girls secretly; some people here are yet to embrace the new anti-FGM culture," she said.
|Younger women are now mutilating girls secretly; some people here are yet to embrace the new anti-FGM culture|
Gender and children affairs permanent secretary James Nyikal, who recently officiated at the signing of a declaration to abandon FGM/C by Ilchamus practitioners, elders and community members, said the government intended to provide alternative sources of income to women who wished to leave the profession to discourage them from returning to it.
Ngochila now makes mandazi (pastry), which she sells in schools around her village. Her income has dropped significantly, and she now survives on just $1.10 per day; she is hoping to benefit from the government's women’s entrepreneur fund to expand her business.
According to UNFPA gender programme officer Florence Gachanja, a campaign targeting Ilchamus elders to fight FGM/C has borne fruit, leading to the community's endorsement of the anti-FGM declaration.
"Elders are the gate-keepers of culture, if they order that a certain traditional practice should be abandoned, [the community follows]," she said.
UNFPA will also be including Ilchamus “moran”, young men, many of whom refuse to marry uncut women. "We will be having a campaign to... convince them [that] women are the same, cut or not cut," Gachanja added.
The Ilchamus practise a form of FGM/C known as clitoridectomy, the removal of all or part of the clitoris. An estimated 32 percent of women in the Rift Valley Province have undergone the procedure, according to the 2009 Kenya Demographic and Health Survey.
Area chief Francis Ole Kaprich says the education of Ilchamus girls will likely have the greatest impact on reducing the prevalence of the practice.
"I am sure this will play a big role in reducing FGM, but there is a need for more campaigns, sensitization and [vigilance] by law keepers if the Ilchamus [are to] abandon FGM completely," he said.
Although criminalizing FGM/C does not seem to have had much impact on the practice, Ole Kaprich said he would be enforcing the law in his own community.
"I know the majority will be doing it in secret, but I will make sure those caught will face the wrath of the law," he said. "We are also sensitizing girls... soon, mutilators will have no one to cut."