A Discussion with Sr. Ephigenia Gachiri, IVBM, Stop FGM
April 23, 2015
Background: Motivated to alleviate the suffering of women in Kenya, Sr. Ephigenia Gachiri, IVBM, joined the Sisters of Loreto, a religious order of Roman Catholic women dedicated to education. Her calling was focused further when she attended the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995 and heard the statistics about female genital mutilation (FGM) in Africa. Sr. Gachiri met with Crystal Corman on April 23, 2015 in Nairobi to discuss her work since 1998 to stop FGM. During this interview, she shares her motivation for focusing her attention and energy on FGM in Kenya and describes her unique faith-based approach. With over 15 years of experience, Sr. Gachiri also speaks about the challenges and need for persistence in preventing this practice.
How did you get into this type of work?
I’m a religious sister, and I believe I have a call from God for a particular mission in God’s kingdom. I grew up here in Kenya, in Kikuyuland, during Emergency (the British government declared a state-of-emergency in Kenya on October 21, 1952). People were very poor in the villages. My mother was a teacher, and my father was a civil servant. At the time, it seemed we were not so poor, but looking back, we were poor.
I saw the work that my mother did as a teacher, and also how she taught nutrition and basic childcare. I remember her telling women not to wash their baby with hot water outside in open, cold wind. I remember seeing so many children at that time just coughing. Child mortality was very high. I think God was calling me to help alleviate some of these sufferings and deaths of children from preventable diseases.
I thought that education would be the answer to helping women get jobs and earn a bit of money. I noticed that in the Loreto school, children passed exams with good grades and got jobs. It seemed the sisters really helped these children. Eventually, I joined the Loreto Sisters and taught in various schools. I also did a pastoral program with a one-month workshop every year in the countryside. During a free day, I would walk around and meet women, asking them about their problems. I learned that FGM was as big of a problem as HIV/AIDS, as well as other ailments.
I had seen FGM in my area, but it’s not so prevalent as my area is a bit educated and also Protestant. FGM is less prominent in Protestant areas than in Catholic ones. I felt that somewhere, one day, I will work to terminate FGM. But not then; at that time I was a teacher. Fighting FGM was just a dream in the back of my mind.
So what finally pulled you into working on FGM specifically?
Out of nowhere, I was invited to go to the Beijing Conference. It was a miracle that I was chosen to attend. Somebody asked me to write an application, and lo and behold, I was to represent Kenyan Catholic women.
When I went to Beijing, for one reason or another I attended presentations by West African women on FGM. I was shocked. It was a wakeup call. Before, I had just a very basic idea of FGM. But when I saw the figures—140 million FGM survivors at that time—I could just calculate and say how much flesh and blood was shed for no reason at all, not to mention pain. We have no measurement for pain. It was overwhelming. And to realize that 90 percent or so are Africans. And it occurred to me —with a big bang—that it was women bringing suffering upon other women.
After returning from Beijing, what did you do next?
I had taught for many years in the Loreto schools, which are known for providing the best education in Kenya and the world. I often taught in national schools, which means that our female students came from all parts of Kenya. If the girls came from Samburu, Maasai, Pokot, or even Kiambu, Kisii, Muranga, Meru, and other areas that practice FGM, they would be already circumcised by the time they came to us for secondary school. They had already passed through the rite. If I teach at the university, which I was doing at the time, that would be a lost case. I could only hope to save the next generation.
I prayed about it. It took three years to get all the permissions and everything in order to go to the grassroots organization in order to save women and girls from FGM, who I hoped would be one generation earlier than the girls from those areas who arrived at the Loreto schools. In 1998, I got permission from the congregation, and they allowed me to carry out the campaign—I began without any blueprints. But I did write to the bishops. As a Catholic nun, I needed the permission of the bishop to enter his area. If a bishop invited me to his diocese, I went there first. Other bishops told me that FGM did not exist in their dioceses.
Where did you begin?
I first went to Kikuyuland, Muranga. Those in town always told me, “We have no FGM,” but in the countryside I was shocked to see the reality. During the holidays, I would wake up in the morning and see the girls going to the circumciser. I saw the girls streaming down the valley! That was in an area where they had told me that there was no FGM, and I had worked with the Kikuyus of Muranga for four years. By the time I left, they had begun circumcising secondary school girls, and primary school teachers were the sponsors. Now, I’m not saying that 100 percent of the girls were undergoing the cut, but it was definitely close to 80 percent.
How did you respond?
After four years, they told me, “Now we know FGM is bad, but we can’t stop because our children cannot grow like goats who just move from one stage of maturity to another with no initiation rite.” This is what challenged me to develop the alternative rite of passage. The parents said their children need to be prepared to enter into adolescence. They have to be prepared for it. They believed that was the original aim of FGM rituals. FGM was a ritual within a rite, but it was only one aspect. Unfortunately, most of the traditional rituals have gone, and only FGM remains today. The cut has assumed a very big role, whereas originally it was only a ritual within the rite. After four years, those people in the village said, “Go and teach town women. Our girls will stay like this because they will be married here; they will live here. You go.” I had trained them. I had written books and pamphlets. But I had to send the message that these parents could stop FGM if they wanted as their children belonged to them. It is up to the parents. I already knew that no person can force human beings to change behavior. People decide for themselves.
Then I moved to the Nakuru and Ngong dioceses. I worked in the two together using the same approach. The people I worked with in the countryside are the ones that tell me, "This group wants you to come; this group is good. This is an important area, etc.”
Do you think you got better access because you are a sister?
No, not really. But many people were surprised to see me doing this work. One group of catechists told me “Look, the bishop has never told us this is wrong; the priests have never told us this is wrong. You really have come to disturb us.”
I think the fact that I’m well educated, older, and from a community that practices FGM gives me credibility. When one talks to the elders politely and with respect for their beliefs, they will accept you. I do not know how much being a sister helps, but perhaps it helps to know that I have no personal benefits to gain from the work.
In my team, I have married men and women because FGM is connected to sex and marriage. Because I’m not married, it’s not ideal for me to be talking to married people about their marital relationships. The married people on my team talk from experience: they tell them “I have gone through FGM. I have had babies. I have a husband. I have children." I have men facilitators who have married women who have gone through FGM. We respect our participants, and they are very happy when men speak with men and the married women address married women. By the time we stay with them in a seminar for one or two days, they open up. Remember, this is a very sensitive area to our people.
Do you work with Catholic leaders to make a wider impact?
I have some women in the pastoral teams of parishes, and dioceses, like in Nakuru, and we work with them. These women are well received in the bishops’ conferences. I think the bishops are often very cautious. They don’t want to start talking about things out of the blue. But they are aware of what we do, and a few bishops have invited me to their dioceses. In fact, the bishops of Marsabit and Isiolo have personally invited me to their dioceses.
How does religion come into your work with the stakeholders?
My team always presents our work as faith-based at the beginning of each seminar. There is no doubt about that. We refer to the Book of Genesis 1:31, and how at creation, God saw everything and found it very good. We demonstrate how God created a woman and a man with mud. We tell them that God did not put parts of the body in the woman just for fun. God created with a plan, a design. This is the way woman was created by God, and he found it very good. No human can to come and say, "This part is bad, and it has to be removed because it causes something bad in the woman or in the married life.” That’s our foundation. We also refer to Genesis 17:9-14 where Abraham was instructed to circumcise male members of his tribe.
Then we talk about the consequences of disabling the woman—or making them less functional sexually. It’s contradictory to the Christian law of one wife, one husband when one of the partners is disabled. All the time, our workshops are Christian-based. That’s our stepping stone because most of our participants are Christian. When we have Muslims in the group, we discuss their view of FGM as it appears with the Video “As Beautiful as God Made Me.” Then, after that, we also discuss culture. We deal with many other cultural issues, as many do connect with FGM, for instance, polygamy. If the community disables the women sexually, then men can have more wives. When a woman gives birth and spaces the children, then she is not, as traditions say, so promiscuous. In fact, it is easier for her to space births where there is no birth control because she does have less desire for men. So there are many reasons that made it advantageous for the men and for the community to have the women cut in earlier times.
Do people feel like you are asking them to change their culture?
We are doing that, actually. It requires that we approach the issue and community gently. You can’t force adults. You can only motivate them to see the reality as it really is. The first sections during seminars include exploratory questions: What is your experience of FGM? What really happens to the woman? How does FGM affect the wife and the husband in their lives? Why do your people circumcise women? The participants discuss these questions in small groups. After airing their views, they are very happy. When they come to report, they are actually very proud to tell us how they circumcise their women, especially the preparations and the advantages. They explain the differences between the cut women and the uncut ones. Sometimes different tribes compete to show they are the best.
Then we ask them, “Where did FGM come from?” They say that they found it being done so they just continue doing it. From that, we lead them to see that the practice is cultural and not hereditary. After that we spend a lot of time discussing the definition of culture. We may ask, “What are some of the cultural practices of your tribe? Are there some which have changed?” Or, “Which cultural practices do you think we should continue with? Which ones do you think we should stop, and why?” I have heard people say: “We don’t wear skins any longer, the housing has changed, we go to school, etc.” We also impress on them that you must learn culture. It’s not genetic. Each of us just follows the culture of the people among whom we are born. And they are surprised to know that culture is learned. That is why culture can change. Because our project is Christian-based, we spend about an hour asking them how Jesus understood culture. Because, if we are Christians, followers of Christ, we should follow Jesus. When did Jesus go against his culture? When and what culture of his people did he change? We then conclude that if we are true followers of Jesus, we too should change aspects of our cultures which are outdated and harmful to our people.
How do they come to see the cultural practice as bad or harmful?
Looking back in history, we explain to them where FGM was started and why it was considered good at the time. Today, we can’t just tell people that FGM is bad. We start with the body and study the physiology of the woman, external and internal. Then we describe the different types of FGM and where they are practiced in the world to make the participants realize that FGM is practiced mainly in Africa. In Kenya, we give them the statistics of the country and the types of FGM and their prevalence.
Then we discuss what happens when a cut woman is giving birth. We ask the women present to tell their stories. We use the methodology of asking leading questions. Some will stand up and say "This is what happened to me. This happens every time I have a baby. This is how long it takes to heal after deliver.” They do testify. Some men also testify about their experiences when they married a cut woman. We get a lot of information from the groups.
After the second day of the seminar, when the group is really traumatized at the end of the day, we have a Christian service, a healing service focused on the psychological harms caused by FGM. This service, which includes Bible verses, lasts for two to three hours. Many of the participants, especially men, cry.
Why did you decide to add this healing service to the workshop?
It is not healthy to open psychological wounds and leave them raw. This would be very cruel, don’t you think? The service emphasizes to them that God forgives. There are many wounds that come from culture, but they can be healed, and we can do something about it.
Also, we do not throw new teachings at people, like exposing pictures of sexual organs of a woman and explaining to people. It’s rude, because our people don’t talk about sex in public. During the third day of the seminar, we talk openly about the consequences of FGM because we have gained their confidence. This lasts a whole day.
And we always begin the day with the celebration of holy Mass; we tell the group that our project is a Catholic-sponsored program, so we worship the Catholic way. We look for a priest who preaches on FGM and culture or something related to our work. Attendance to Mass is not obligatory, but over 90 percent of the group typically attends.
Our three-day workshops have been very successful. The participants go home very happy; they all want it to be longer, and they invite us to come again. Some say “Please, let my wife come to this workshop.” Some Catholic women say “I must go to confession because I took my daughters for FGM. If this is what I did to them, I must go and confess because it is a sin.” We really get touched.
Are the workshops a mixture of parents, teachers, community leaders, and then also in schools?
I have a team of about 30 people. We work with parents and all stakeholders—like chiefs, police, primary and secondary teachers—giving workshops to create awareness of what FGM is and its consequences. I think our work covers a wide range. We also work with schools. For example on Fridays my team goes to public schools, and on Saturdays they go to private schools or to boarding schools. They divide the students and teach boys and girls separately.
Do you need to return to communities repeatedly?
That’s absolutely necessary because people forget our message. They go home, and they are influenced by their peers. It is very hard to change people the first time. So that’s why in this work, there is no way of saying it is finished. I’m telling you the best strategy would be to go three times to the same group. You see, we meet with different groups in the same community. For example, before we teach children in schools, we start with their teachers. We bring the head teachers for the three-day workshops. Then, another time, we bring two teachers from every school, especially the guidance and counseling teachers. Then we take elders and opinion leaders of the communities and churches. They are always homogeneous groups of adults. In some communities we take young married men and women on one day, women the next day, and men the third day. This works very well, and a team of three spends three days in the village.
I’ve heard that in response to pressure, some groups have adapted FGM and altered the practice.
Our people are often very cunning. In one area, I was told they had circumcised the children at four years old, as the parents of these children had said “Let us be done with it before these people come.” They just cleared the lot. In other places, they decided to circumcise the children before they know what is happening to them and when it is easier to heal. Some circumcise babies even of eight days.
Then in one area, the priest told me “Yes, sister, the husband and the mother in-law, just tell the village birth attendant to ‘finish everything.’” The woman giving birth won’t know it was done. She will be in such pain that she will not differentiate the types of pain. In one community, the old women told young women that the clitoris comes out with the baby during delivery.
To make a long story short, after 15 years, I just feel I have to go back now and study methods of cultural attitudinal change. I feel defeated… well, I shouldn’t say that. But, it is difficult. The battle is still far from over. The practice keeps going underground.
But there are so many actors working to end FGM. Why are some approaches failing?
If a group begins on the surface, just whitewashing the culture, or if one enters into a community abruptly, then one achieves little. The same will result if one calls people for two-hour workshops, just giving the community t-shirts, then they dance, they take their registration and make a video.
How do you hope to expand your own work and approach?
Termination of FGM project is not much in the limelight—like in the newspapers and television—but we feel that we really are working in the countryside where this work is needed. We work very hard. Currently, I have three workshops going on this weekend. Today, there was a Protestant group, PCEA, who gathered somewhere in Gilgil, for a youth camp. They have asked two of us to go and give a presentation about FGM at an all-day camp. They are the ones who invited us. A priest has asked my people who speak Kalenjin to come to Molo. A team of two, a man and a woman, will go to the village and remain there for three days. One day they meet with young married people, men and women. The next day they meet only women. The third day they take the men. In this way, they cover a village. I have another group starting tomorrow for a two-day workshop working with stakeholders, head teachers and teachers. One group will be two days and the next one over the weekend.
I have traveled all over Kenya in the last 15 years, so much so that I am very tired. The Loreto Sisters have planned to build a center exclusively for FGM work. Participants will also come from Tanzania or Uganda. When we have a group of five or ten persons from three or four communities, they will learn a lot from each other. We plan to work with people from very remote parts of Kenya, because we can bring them together in this center. When they go home, they will pass the message to their families and communities. We have bought land and begun the construction of the center already. The center will be able to carry out research and publish materials. We have already translated pamphlets into seven languages.
I tell people that Jesus says “I came that people may have life and have it more abundantly.” I therefore ask the participants: Does a woman whose child dies, or who loses four children before they are five years of age, have abundant life? How about a person who cannot read or write, or somebody who dies from malaria because they did not use mosquito nets or from dysentery because they don’t know about dirty water or washing their hands? Do these people have full life as Jesus wants all people to have?
So, what is abundant life? See those Millennium Development Goals: aren’t they about abundant life? Imagine the woman who dies giving birth, and the consequences of it to her husband and the children and her relatives and even the community? Do you see what I mean? So I’m terminating FGM, but it is really answering the call of Jesus to me and to all of us, the call to enable all humanity to achieve abundant life. Termination of FGM project is not able to assist all people: men, women, children, and beggars. We minister to the girl child and the woman—and indirectly to the family and the society at large.