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Interview: Christine Alfons, FGM campaigner

30 October 2015

‘I cannot understand why people continue to perform FGM’

Growing up, it was hard. It was difficult for everything to work out. Finding enough food to eat and getting to school was hard. I can still remember going to school with torn shoes. Now, though, our situation has improved. Now, my little sisters are going to school in smart uniform, and they can’t believe what it was like when I was young.


I am pursuing actuarial science, which focuses on insurance and pensions. It’s not really related to my social passion for ending FGM [Female Genital Mutilation]. It focuses on mathematics and numbers. I really love maths, but this is a way for me to make money in the future, and to support me as I campaign to end FGM.


It is amazing the way Feed the Minds can go to new communities and held educate them. A friend of mine told me about the way they work, going into schools and community groups. They make a platform to talk to the whole community about FGM, and when I heard this I wanted to start working with them immediately.


It is very true that people who practise FGM are just following a culture. However, it is also inhumane and cruel. It is such a painful action, and there is no medical reason at all. So, yes, I do believe it is cruel, even though it is an old cultural practice.


There is no Bible teaching around FGM. It is a very old cultural practice, which transcends religion. But I would say it is a Christian issue, because it happens in Christian communities, and many churches and parishes are working against it. They take responsibility for educating their congregation.


My dad was more educated in the family, and he went to a secondary school in a community that did not practise FGM. When my dad passed on when I was eight years of age, he had left a message with my mum; so when I got to the age of 12 and everyone was expecting me to go to the cut, she told me what my dad’s view was.


I had also got some information about the negative effects of FGM, and so my mum supported me. She received resistance from the family, and the community; so it was hard — there was discrimination. [At one point] my mum said: “You should go through this,” but because of the last words of my dad, and my strong stand on FGM, she had to comply. Also, she told me it was a painful experience; and at one point, giving birth, her [FGM] wound opened up. Yes, I have two sisters, one is 18 and the other is 16.


Who is vulnerable entirely depends on who you are surrounded by. As we speak, there are some girls who are 17 who can be convinced or forced to get the cut because of the influences around them. Girls as young as nine are being cut, as they have lowered the age in which they start to perform the action. So girls can be at risk for a very long time.


To me, FGM is totally sexual violence. It is not medical or aesthetic. For example, we used to have huge ear piercings, in which we would stretch the ear lobes. This was the beginning of the rite of FGM, and would happen before the cut. However, this began to damage people’s hearing, and so, as a community, we stopped it. So I cannot understand why people continue to perform FGM when we know how harmful it can be.


It gives me hope, however, that we have stopped other harmful practices around FGM, and that motivates me to think that we can stop the cut itself, too.


We call it “mutilation” [rather than “female circumcision”], specifically because it is a different action from circumcision. It is a completely different thing. Often male circumcision is performed for a specific medical purpose; but there is no purpose behind the FGM, and physically it is much more harmful and dangerous.


Most of the tribes in Kenya still perform the cut, and, yes, male circumcision is also widely practised; but it is a much safer process. Most of the communities who do FGM will also do male circumcision.


It’s done by both men and women. Both sexes have motivations for perpetuating it. For most men, they want to marry a woman who is cut; for she is deemed “clean”. And for women, especially elders and grandmothers, they would only want a cut woman to join their family. They would consider it an abomination if a family member wanted to marry an uncut woman. It has even been known that when an uncut woman is giving birth away from a hospital, the midwife would cut the mother during the labour at the wishes of the family.


Minds are beginning to change, however, and more and more young men want to marry a woman who is not cut, though this would not be supported by their family.


By partnering with ECAW, the Education Centre for the Advancement of Women, and Feed the Minds, I am trying to educate new people, create awareness about FGM, and enable people to access the information that will help them abandon it. We are reaching new areas, and helping to educate more isolated communities, and teaching people who didn’t know before.


I undertook the half-marathon in London for this cause. I am not a natural runner, or a trained one; but I practised for four months, doing short races, and then I did the big one on Sunday 11 October. I surprised myself. I loved the race. It was very inspirational, running with such a large group, and the crowds were amazing for motivating me and keeping me going. I had my name written on my shirt; so people would call out “Go, Christine!” which really helped. The London parks looked very beautiful with all the leaves on the ground.


There is an athletics team in my university, and I may participate in it now.


I loved seeing Buckingham Palace. That was awesome. I am enjoying the friendly and social people I have been meeting through Feed the Minds. I have met so many. I only dislike the cold, and I even wear my coat on the Tube.


I am happiest when the girls I am mentoring come out and speak out for themselves — when I have trained them, and they say they want to speak to their parents and convince them that they should not have to face FGM. That is a very dangerous and horrible thing for them to have to go through.


The best possible sound I can ever hear is when the community elders come out and say: “We will support you.” That is the best: to know our hard work is paying off, and we are changing minds about the culture surrounding FGM.


I try never to get angry, but sometimes I worry for my sisters, and I hope that they can have the same opportunities to get an education that I have had. But I try to always be happy.


I am happiest when my mum is supporting me in everything I do: my studies and my battle to end FGM. It makes me so happy and proud.


My mum, Martha, influences me most in life. She always tells me to be positive in everything I do. Also Bishop Solomon at the Streams of Water Church, who is a friend of mine and my spiritual leader; Allan Emert, who helped me get through high school and helped me get an education; my friend “Uncle” James, who introduced me to the work of ECAW and helped me push on in my fight against FGM; finally, the founder of ECAW, Dennitah Ghati, who is now a Member of Parliament in Kenya, and is a most inspiring lady.


I pray for a community free from FGM. That is my prayer every morning.


I’d choose to be locked in a church with Mother Teresa. This woman had a passion for something, like I do, and she did so much with it. So I would love to sit with her and ask: “How did it go? How did you achieve so much?” I am sure she could give me some amazing advice.


Christine Alfons was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.



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