Florence’s rescue center has saved 413 girls from female genital mutilation, or FGM, and early marriage. The Kenyan schoolteacher’s lifelong crusade to stop FGM began with her own narrow escape as a child.
Warning: This story contains sensitive content that may be confronting.
In a thicket off the dusty road, 10-year-old Faith* surveys her options. Which tree will be the safest to spend the night in? The shadows are lengthening, and she glances nervously over her shoulder. A spotted hyena, a lion, her older brothers — she’s not sure which would frighten her more.
She chooses a sese tree, sturdy and reassuring. Jamming her feet onto footholds, she hauls herself up into the branches. With the solid trunk against her back, she shuts her eyes in relief. She’s in northern Kenya’s wilderness, alone except for hidden, prowling predators. She spends the long night squinting into the darkness and jumping at sounds.
But she refuses to climb down and run home. The danger there, the dread of three strange letters — FGM — feels more terrifying.
“In our community, when a girl reaches about 9 years old, she is taken through FGM and then married off. So, when my parents told me that they would do that to me, I ran away and hid in the bush for a day,” Faith explains.
“On returning home, my brothers threatened to beat me with sticks. I ran away for good. I know girls my age who went through FGM and look like grandmothers now because of their difficult lives and the depression they suffer.”
A Violation of Human Rights
Performed by traditional circumcisers known as “cutters,” or even medical professionals, FGM is a brutal ritual. It involves the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia for nonmedical reasons. It is usually performed on girls before age 15 — sometimes on girls as young as babies.
Traditionally signaling a girl’s readiness for marriage, FGM is a violation of children’s rights.
Each year, around 4 million girls like Faith are at risk of being cut. The consequences are immediate and lifelong. Infections, chronic pain, difficulty urinating, infertility, psychological trauma — and even death. Despite being illegal in most of these countries, FGM continues in western, eastern and northeastern Africa, as well as among immigrants in places like Australia, Canada, Europe and the United States.
FGM and child marriage often go hand in hand. UNICEF reports that almost 1 in 4 Kenyan girls are married before age 18 and almost 1 in 20 by age 15.
“I tried to implore my parents not to marry me off, but they were adamant,” says Faith. “My biggest fear was not being able to attend school, and I was also afraid of being a third or fourth wife to a man older than 50. That is not the life I had envisioned for myself.”
She heard hope-filled whispers of a primary school 62 miles away that offered refuge to girls in her situation. With her future narrowing before her eyes, Faith fled. After one week of walking, pale with fatigue, she reached the school gate. Dozens of girls played in the yard. One by one, they stopped to stare.
In her traditional goatskin skirt, vest and beads, Faith stood out among their neat school uniforms.
The girls knew what to do, though. They led Faith into the school building.
To meet Florence.
No Ordinary School
Florence has a beaded bracelet in the pattern of the Kenyan flag. It’s appropriate: This head teacher of the local primary school could easily be described as a mother to her nation. Her dark eyes are quick and observant, her arms always ready to pull a child in for a hug.
She remembers the first time she met Faith four years ago. “She could only speak Pokot dialect and was dressed in traditional regalia,” says Florence.
“She was tired, filthy and emaciated. We took her in, cared for her and gave her all the psychological support she needed.”
Florence knew exactly how to help Faith — she had once been in her position. Her father had nine wives and 77 children. He didn’t believe education was necessary for girls, so Florence snuck to school each day. Once, he caught Florence still wearing her school uniform. He beat her. When she was 12 years old, her family received an offer. “An old man from a neighboring village wanted me to be his fourth wife,” says Florence. Her eldest brother had already accepted the bride price of camels, cows and goats. After the ritual cutting of FGM, she would be considered the man’s property.
Florence did the only thing she could. She ran.
Over the next decade, Florence lived with friends so she could attend school, then college, sending word to her supportive mother that she was OK. Graduating with a teaching degree, she became the first of the 38 girls in her family to finish her education.
At 21, she married the man of her choice — a privilege few women her age knew. She was appointed head teacher at a primary school and was excited to mentor young girls.
What occurred next, she says, “happened as if by the plan of God.”
The Rescue Center for Girls
In 2003, two girls arrived at the school, desperate and disheveled. Florence looked in their eyes and saw herself as a child. They had run from FGM and early marriage.
Knowing the girls couldn’t return home, Florence converted a classroom into a dormitory. Mattresses replaced school desks. The rescue center was born. As word spread, other girls sought refuge. The average age of the arrivals is 12 years old. The youngest was just 9.
“They arrive traumatized and sometimes injured. Many girls must make the treacherous trip to the center at night. Some spend days walking with no food or water, depending only on well-wishers or foraging in the bush for whatever they can eat. They reach the center tired, dirty and emaciated,” says Florence.
Each girl is enrolled into school, often for the first time.
“Poverty and FGM are like brother and sister,” explains Florence. “Many families, because of poverty, only look at girls as a source of income.”
In Kenya, “bride price” is still widely practiced, where the groom’s family pay their future in-laws in money, gifts or animals. “Girls are not enrolled in school, and as soon as they are 9 years old, a suitor is sought. Not educating girls continues to promote poverty, as women cannot make decisions since they are wholly dependent on their husbands.”
She continues, “Girls and women are the pillar of a nation. An educated girl means the community can make better choices at a family level. When girls and women are economically empowered, the entire community experiences the benefits.”
By day, it’s an ordinary school. “But as soon as the regular students leave at the end of the day, we become a center for girls who have run away from home, seeking a chance to make a better future for themselves and their families,” says Florence. “Here, they receive counseling, food, and their basic needs are provided.”
At the end of the school day, Florence also switches roles — from teacher to mother.
“She has a genuine love for all of us that can only be God-sent,” says Faith.
When the pandemic forced schools to close in Kenya, Florence took two dozen girls into her own home. Faith says simply, “If that is not love, then what is?”
However, it’s dangerous work. Florence and her team are defying centuries-old traditions passed down from generation to generation. “I am challenging the status quo as a woman, so I am constantly at risk,” she says. She has been confronted by a group of men armed with canes, men intent upon reclaiming an intended bride — and teaching Florence a lesson. Thankfully, the police arrived to intervene.
Florence remains undeterred.
A Life-Changing Partnership
As she blazes a trail in her community, Florence is not alone. Her husband is supportive, and their 27-year-old daughter helps to mentor the girls. And in 2016, Compassion partnered with the local church to launch Compassion’s Child Sponsorship Program in the community. Florence was unanimously selected to chair the committee overseeing the child development center.
“My role at the Compassion center entails championing the rights of the children. With the help of Compassion, we can empower the community to take up child protection seriously,” she says. “Compassion has provided immense knowledge to help me in the championing of children’s rights.”
With Florence and the local church’s efforts, change is happening. There is a new generation of girls who will never know the pain of FGM or the consequences of early marriage.
“The Child Sponsorship Program will give the children a ray of hope,” says the Rev. Yusuf, the church pastor.
“We give them the opportunity to relearn, and the tools to be able to shun cultural practices that do not honour God. The Word of God is the greatest tool for transformation, and we believe that as we disciple our kids to disciple other kids in the community, there will be a ripple effect of change.”
Parents, too, are trained in children’s rights and are offered an alternative Bible-based coming-of-age ceremony to replace the traditional rituals. “We need the parents to be on the forefront of protecting their kids from any practices that infringe on their rights,” says Yusuf.
The center’s dream is to empower girls to be role models at the forefront of change in the community — and even the world. “We envision girls who are governed by the Word of God, who value themselves and their bodies, and believe that God made them wonderful as they are,” he says.
A Pillar of Hope
Since 2003, more than 413 girls have sought refuge at Florence’s school. Many are now attending high schools, boarding schools and colleges around the country, some on scholarships Florence helped to secure. Today, 14-year-old Faith is wearing the neat school uniform she had always longed for. She says the school is her home now and dreams of being a doctor.
“It is my desire that the stories of resilience and courage by the many girls I have met here are shared,” says Faith. “The work that Florence does is of immense importance and must be prioritized if FGM and early marriages are to be resolved.”
Sadly, seven girls who left the center and returned home during COVID-induced lockdowns are now married. UNICEF reports that the COVID-19 pandemic’s effects — shuttering schools, increasing child marriage, disrupting advocacy programs — could lead to an extra 2 million cases of FGM over the next decade. As poverty increases, parents’ fears over their daughters’ futures leaves them facing heartbreaking choices.
Faith believes everyone can play a part in ending the practice. “People can help by supporting the efforts of people like Florence and by offering their platforms and influence to address the issue of FGM,” she says. “It is a violation of so many rights of children and must be treated as such — a crime.”
Asked how she’d like to see the rescue center in 10 years’ time, Florence dreams of it being “a pillar of hope.” But if you ask Faith and the hundreds of girls who came after her, who stumbled into the school under a stark sun or in the dead of night, when they were dazed, desperate and desolate — it already is.
*Name changed to protect identity.
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Field reporting and photography by Isaac Ogila, Compassion Kenya photojournalist