By Sarah Ooko, World Vision Senior Communications Officer, Kenya.
In one of the villages situated in Baringo County, Kenya, an elderly woman is conducting a special class on a topic that is dear to her heart.
Paka, in her seventies, is a reformed circumciser who has vowed to do everything possible - within her ability - to fight Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) that has been practised in her community, at Mondi in Baringo County for years.
She frequently organises community forums where she sensitises women in her village on the adverse effects of FGM.
“I used to cut girls because that was a cultural practice that the community valued. All along, I thought I was doing something good. But I later realised that I was harming them and it brought me so much pain,” states Paka.
She adds: “Now, I work so hard to change people’s mind in my community so they can save our children and girls from the practice. I also want to protect them from the anguish and pain that I feel when I remember the girls that I may have harmed unknowingly.”
She attributes her reformation and change of heart to a local preacher - trained by World Vision - who enabled her to see ‘light’ at a time when her life was filled with ‘darkness’.
While practising FGM, Paka notes that she would receive cash - as a token of appreciation - from parents whose daughters she had cut.
“These women used to respect us because based on traditional beliefs, FGM enables girls to transition into adulthood or womanhood. It also increases their value and makes them ready for marriage, which brings wealth to families through dowry,” she explains.
After cutting the girls, Paka and fellow circumcisers would be invited to celebratory parties where traditional alcoholic brews were in plenty.
“Because of the free alcohol, I used to drink a lot and this ended up affecting my life as all I could think about was the beer. Also, once people got drunk late in the night, all manner of things happened and people would even kill each other! I was living a dangerous life yet I didn’t know how to stop,” recounts Paka.
Worse still, she notes that the income she used to get through circumcision failed to give her the satisfaction she was looking for in life.
“I kept cutting girls and getting cash but I was always sad. Sometimes, the money would be stolen when we were drunk and I would go back home with nothing. I was poor, struggling each day to take care of my family. So life had lost meaning for me,” Paka notes solemnly.
One day, in the midst of her grief stricken life, which increasingly resembled a bottomless dark hole with no way out, Paka met a religious leader – trained by World Vision - who inspired her to change.
“I didn’t know the pastor but it’s like he was sent to save my life since his message gave me hope. He began coming home and he would read the bible and pray for me. He also kept assuring me that despite what I had done, God still loved me and had forgiven me. This began to heal my heart slowly by slowly,” she says.
During the ensuing spiritual devotion sessions with the pastor, Paka also got to learn of the adverse effects of FGM and how it was causing suffering to God’s children.
“At this point, I had grown in faith. And it pained me to realise that I had wronged God yet he loved me so much. I finally understood that the suffering in my life was linked to the pain I was causing the children,” she states.
Thereafter, Paka abandoned the FGM practice and chose to become a children's rights champion. She also embraced alternative sources of income such as crop farming and livestock keeping that are enabling her to take good care of her grandchildren.
“I am now happy with my life and thankful to God for turning my life around through the pastor that he sent my way,” she states.
Pastor Solomon who 'saved' Paka's life, is among the many religious leaders empowered by World Vision that are working with families to enhance the well-being of children in Baringo County during this time of COVID-19.
“Children have been home since schools closed in March due to the coronavirus disease. This has put them at risk of harmful cultural practices like FGM and child marriage. My goal is to keep them safe,” he says.
Thanks to the training he received on World Vision’s Celebrating Families Model, Pastor Solomon states that he learnt of the significant role that parents play in nurturing children so as to enable them feel God’s love, lead happy lives and achieve their full potential in life.
Through the training, Pastor Solomon states that he was able to get a deeper understanding of how harmful cultural practices like FGM, which may appear harmless to communities – cause suffering to children and rob them of the happy life and bright future that God intended for them to have.
“This revelation put in my heart the fire to spread the word of God in my community and make people understand that to fully serve God and experience his love and blessings, they need to protect children from all forms of abuse. You find joy by bringing joy to others,” he notes.
Aside from sensitising the community on the dangers of FGM and child marriage, Pastor Solomon also constantly checks on children in his village and reports any cases of abuse to relevant child protection and law enforcement officers.
He was empowered by World Vision through its Big Dream programme being implemented in Baringo and West Pokot Counties in Kenya.It seeks to ensure that all girls are cared for and protected from FGM, Child marriage and other forms of violence.