The horrors of female genital mutilation suffered by tribal girls in northern Kenya has been laid bare by survivors and perpetrators of the procedure.
Women from the indigenous Pokot tribe told how they were cut without their consent on the orders of family members, or else ran away from home after finding out they would be subject to the potentially-lethal surgery.
Meanwhile a group of women who used to perform the operation told how girls were subjected to the surgery with no anaesthetic, and punished if they cried or flinched.
Their stories were revealed by British charity One Woman At A Time, which aims to help women escape from a life of FGM, abuse and forced marriage.
One survivor, identified only as Christine, told how she grew up with her grandmother in a village that doesn’t practice FGM, before she met and married a man from a neighbouring village.
After they were wed she was then taken to live with him and his in-laws in a village where the practice is common, where she was quickly ostracised.
She said: ‘I wasn’t allowed to cook him food or milk the cows as I was told I was unclean. Other women avoided me saying I was a bad omen and that I turned their milk sour.
‘Also, they said that I smelt, as I wasn’t cut, so they would hold their noses in exaggeration when coming by me.
‘When the cows died, they blamed me. The loneliness and being treated that way, I was so frightened.’
A short time later Christine fell pregnant with a baby boy- named Silas – and when it came time for her to give birth she was given into the care of tribal birth attendants.
She described the birth as ‘really painful’, and said the birth attendants were forced to hold her legs down as the baby was delivered.
Unbeknown to Christine, her mother-in-law had paid one of the attendants to perform FGM while she gave birth, even cutting her baby’s head in the process.
She only discovered what had happened after she contracted a potentially-fatal infection and was taken to doctors.
Describing the type of wound inflicted on Christine, a six former cutters – who say the stopped the practice in 2012, shortly after it became illegal in Kenya – explained that it involves full removal of the labia and partial removal of the clitoris.
The vulva is also sewed together to prevent sexual intercourse.
Women often have their legs bound together while the cut heals, with a follow-up inspection to ensure she is ‘small’ enough not to bring shame on her family.
‘No crying or even facial gestures must be shown, if they show fear they will forfeit getting a young man and instead will get an old man’, one of the women revealed.
Christine revealed that doctors referred her to police, who were sent to arrest the tribal birth attendant, who pointed the finger at Christine’s mother-in-law.
She claims the mother-in-law subsequently paid off the officer, and no action has ever been taken over her mutilation.
Worse was to come.
‘My husband threw me out and kept my son, so I returned home – but my uncles said I’d shamed the family. The only one who would take me in was my grandmother,’ Christine added.
Shunned by the only villages she had ever known, Christine was given support by One Woman At A Time to reenter education and is now studying to be a teacher.
Another women, called Salome, said she was just 13 years old when she learned that she was going to be cut and married off to an older man she had never met.
Rather than subject herself to that fate, she fled her home village with no idea of where she was going and only one shoe.
‘I just ran and hid, ran and hid. It took me three days to get over the mountain running in the day and I slept in trees at night, in fear of lions,’ Salome said.
‘After a few days I was exhausted and met a woman at the stream who seemed kind and I told her what had happened.’
The woman took her to a refuge, where Jean Anderson – founder of One Woman At A Time – first met her.
Salome is also studying a teaching course, and has since got back in touch with her parents, who welcomed her back.
A third girl, 15-year-old Gladys, became the victim of both FGM and forced marriage before she turned 12, when is when she arrived at the Ortum school, where many of the rescued girls are educated.
She recently fell pregnant during sex that she insists was consensual, and in October suffered through risky and painful birth due to FGM.
Despite being in pain, she soon returned to school in order to take a three-hour exam in her efforts to build a life for herself.
The Pokot are a tribe that live across Kenya and Uganda, where about 750,000 speak the native language.
Their tribal rituals and customs evolved from a need to ensure the survival of the family in an often harsh environment, but are viewed as increasingly outdated.
Of the 750,000 Pokot speakers, only around 35,000 are thought to practice a tribal lifestyle, not all of whom subscribe to FGM.
Traditionally, the cutting season happens between November and December and involves young girls aged between 12 and 16, with the idea being to keep them ‘pure’ for marriage.
As with child marriage, the practice has now been outlawed in Kenya, with a maximum penalty of life in jail if a girl dies during the procedure, but so far there have been no successful prosecutions.