I’m asking God for a stronger back ~ Domtila Chesang

“Most people are used to the old spearheading this campaign, it is still uncommon to see and believe that a young person like myself is on it. This undermining of what we are capable of doing also affects my work because in most cases people tend to think young people know very little, and they need to be told what to do and how to do it. I have however challenged that through the amount of work that is evident everywhere, but there are still others who feel like they should lead we follow. The leadership of young people should never be questioned, we got the tools, passion and energy and as an added advantage being a grassroots activist who lives in the village I have the experience and expertise to get the best out.”

Domtila Chesang is the co-founder of Beyond FGM, an organization that fights to end FGM. Domtila hails from West Pokot County where FGM prevalence is over 75% though in some remote villages the prevalence is still at 100%. Due to the work she does, today she is well known, and has received an award from the queen in the Queen’s Young Leaders’ Fellowship 2017. She is the 2nd born in a family of 6 and the eldest daughter of her mother. She was born into a polygamous family where her father had three wives, and 16 children all together. Being the eldest sister, she took up responsibilities from a tender age, to look after her siblings.

The First lady West Pokot County posing for a photo with Domtila Chesang as they hold Chesang’s awards

Today, she is an elder/big sister to many girls who have run away from FGM as well as those rescued from being married off early, and she helps them continue with their education. She uses her influence on social media to fund-raise for these girls and get them to school.

The most recent case is of a standard seven 14-year-old girl who was married of as a fourth wife during the April Holiday. She worked with the authorities to rescue the girl and later fundraised to get her back to school where the girl is doing very well in a partner boarding school. Earlier on, she helped rescue another 13-year-old who had been married off to an old man as the 5th wife. She also took the girl to Ortum girls boarding primary school where she’s continuing with her education. The young girl wants to be a lawyer.

Girls at Ortum primary school performing a traditional song at a past function

Ortum girls boarding primary school works closely with Beyond FGM organization to give shelter and education to girls who are rescued by the organization. This year, the school gives refuge to over 50 girls who have been rescued from FGM and early marriages as well as those from humble backgrounds. The head teacher Mrs.  Maurine Nekesa has been in the school from 1986. She says there are limited resources yet many girls are thirsting for education. The school together with Beyond FGM works to support the girls to remain in school by reaching out to friends and well-wishers. She urges county governments to set aside a kitty to assist children from humble backgrounds to access education.

“The quest for education for these girls encourages us to help, and to look for more support to help more girls. They are persistent and most do not drop on the way. The county government should organize and have a kitty in every ward to assist those children from humble homes to access education,” says Mrs. Nekesa.

Ortum primary School administration block

It is in this school that Domtila studied and it helped in making her the person she is today. She says;

“I was performing well in school. I went to Ortum girls at class 4, and at class 6 went to boarding. That is where my life changed. If I had stayed at home maybe, I would have been cut and married off. Ortum was one of the best boarding primary schools. It changed me, I found myself in a place where I enjoyed being a girl and a child, as this was my dream school, it was a dream come true.”

When I was around 11 I had witnessed enough FGM ‘ceremonies’ in my village. Through the celebrations and ceremonies accompanying the cut I personally so much looked forward to the time I would be cut. On many occasions we imitated the process with my friends, who were later sadly cut. Since all the other older female relatives and neighbors had gone through the cut we had been made to believe that FGM was a necessity. It wasn’t until when I witnessed my cousin being cut. In my culture FGM is practiced in two stages one public and the second in a secluded place with only older women who had previously undergone FGM permitted to witness. This was done in a bid to protect young girls from seeing the PAIN beforehand so that when their time comes they wouldn’t be scared   During this occasion woman were drunk, we sneaked into the place where the operation was being done together with another cousin.

I saw things I wouldn’t want to see again in my life. I witnessed everything that happened. When they noticed who was in their midst they chased us and I ran all the way home. That is when reality struck that there was more to FGM than the merry and the dancing we saw.

I knew a time would come when I would be expected to go through the same and it wasn’t so long. I started to think and imagined how on earth was I going to endure all that pain, imagining my genitals, both clitoris and labia being chopped off. The thought of that and the fear that came with it forced me to confront my mother that evening asking her why they did that to us. I wanted to know from her why the operation was not taking place in hospital, after I remember having heard that at the hospital when a woman is undergoing c-section they would be given something that will make them not feel any pain. Why not FGM operation then, that was my question. During this time again in some families mostly staunch Christians and well off families had started to have their sons circumcised in hospitals and not the bush as we were used to. But there was nothing like that for the girls. So many questions went through my mind, I was so scared. My mother’s answer of just nodding her head was not satisfying. I didn’t know what her stand was because we never talked about FGM at home.

I devised my escape from home through convincing my parents that I wanted to go to a boarding school. Thank God I was academically a bright girl who never enjoyed house chores, so my mother had no good reason for keeping me around. They accepted and that was my way out. Being in an environment where it was girls and teachers from different communities both practicing and non-practicing FGM, it didn’t take me long to realize that FGM was not a life necessity.

From left, Domtila Chesang, West Pokot County First lady Dr. Mary Lonyang’apuo and Anti-FGM Board CEO Bernadette Loloju during the Day of the African Child celebrations at Kong’elai grounds in West Pokot

However back home during the holidays the ordeal continued to traumatize me so much because some of my friends including my younger sister had undergone it, and I feared being a laughing stock. I just wanted to feel comfortable in being whole (uncut). I needed the assurance that I was making the right decision to not undergo the cut. I cared about being fine the way I was born. I cared about being right to say NO to FGM. I never minded about being married; none of that crossed my mind. Although being in a boarding school had helped me strengthen my stand, I still needed to convince other girls, my friends specially to stand with me and not undergo the practice. Not a single girl I know of who underwent FGM continued with school, none, including my own sister. I remember a close friend who let go of my hand one morning during one of the cutting ceremonies and joined the other girls who were being cut and she too was cut. That was the end, she dropped from school and was then married. I meet my friends in the village all the time. I wish someone had started this campaigns to preach against and educate on the effects of FGM earlier, all my friends today would be empowered women.

Pursuing secondary education wasn’t so easy. As a believer I do believe God enabled thing to happen for a reason. The journey was tough, but I had my star. Born in a polygamous family comes with its challenges especially when the women of the home are not empowered with any property, education or employment. I was still determined to shine and never allowed my background to deter me from excelling both in life and school. As a girl I had witnessed enough suffering that my own mother battled and struggled with just to feed us, ranging from domestic violence among others.

When I joined university Beyond FGM was formed but first as a self-help group called Kepsteno Rotwo(Let’s abandon the knife) made up of reformed cutters, traditional birth attendants, teachers, midwives, religious and cultural leaders. After three years it graduated to a CBO and was registered in 2013. The main initial activities carried out by the organization were sensitization, trainings e.g. seminars, and workshops e.t.c. We held workshops for girls every long holiday and this is when I discovered my passion for community work. I spoke on this platform mainly as a role model, a girl who refused FGM and now pursuing university education. Most of the girls we trained were in primary school and few were in secondary. I was the only one in university. They wanted to hear more about university and how I managed to survive with the pressure of FGM. I loved listening and sharing with my little sisters. The feeling of having something to offer was satisfying. Staying with them during the trainings and keeping in touch with some even after school changed my life. The bond grew stronger with time and I realized that the girls needed me more than I thought and that more work needed to be done in as far empowering the girl child was concerned.

The organization grew gradually, I did not really plan to be an activist, I did not foresee it coming until after I started speaking at forums with both parents and girls every other holiday. When I was finalizing campus I made a conscious choice, I told myself I could not go looking for employment. I realized there was still much work that needed to be done, and there were many loopholes to be sealed. We were doing the campaigns during the holidays mainly as a result of limited resources and also lack of proper structure both leadership and organizational. There was need to do more.

I wanted to talk to the girls to tell them being whole is right, it is how it’s supposed to be. I didn’t want them to worry about their genitals being cut, I wanted them to grow knowing that they were born perfect. To date I still strive to achieve that.

Milestones in fighting the cut

“In my village and the areas around, there is no more FGM. My other young sisters never went through it. There is a massive change because we have trained over 5000 girls. The training is a way of clearing doubts, empowering them with information including how their bodies function, their rights and needs for education. Most of the girls remain uncut and a very small number goes back to undergo FGM especially those who drop out of school due to pregnancies or other challenges. Every year we are getting new girls coming for training, and are eager to learn and to gain knowledge and share their stories.

Children are running away from home because of FGM and child marriages. They are now able to say no. We have rescued 28 girls and taken them to school. Our pioneers have joined college and we do this completely from fundraising, through friends and the influence on social media.

The organization is usually mistaken for an NGO, because of the massive work it is doing. Little do they know that we are a very small organization but being some grassroots is an advantage as we are all-round, we don’t discriminate. We handle all issues when they are brought to our attention as long as we are able to and still channel the rest to the relevant organization. We are a CBO that does all these on a very limited budget. As an activist, I use my influence to get things done. I go out of my way to help because things have to get moving. This includes hosting girls in my own house every other holiday and finding foster homes to keep others as we continue to fund-raise to complete our safe house.

What challenges do you face in your quest to #EndFGM?

“Our biggest challenge is the fact that FGM is still not being recognized by people as a serious issue by leaders and other people with influence, power and money. There’s very little support because it has not been made a priority. This makes our work hard as an organization in trying to reach out and create awareness on it. The community is big, reaching everyone is a challenge. If we had more players, then we would be able to do more. Funding is another problem. There is no vehicle nor are funds set aside for emergency response, in the remote places where these occur. There is no financial support.

Unlike other counties where systems have been established in partnership with civil society organizations, here, we do not have any rescue center. If a child is rescued, regarded as a child in need of care and protection they are put in custody, in adult cells-sad truth. We are still struggling as a community to get even a temporary place to rescue and care for the children and also to cater for their education. The families cannot feed their children, so schooling is not an option. So if you tell them to abandon FGM, then you have to pay for the schooling.

Personally, my strength is in making sure these children are in school. To maintain them especially in boarding schools. This way, they will be safe from the risk of being cut.

Another challenge is that of over-expectation from people. Of course we want to go to all the villages but we cannot do that alone with no support. They have even branded me “yule msichana wa FGM”. I try to educate them to know that to end FGM requires our collective responsibility.”

The Queen’s young leaders’ fellowship

“I applied for the fellowship and became one of the winners and was the only one working on FGM. It was a win for me for the campaign to be recognized by the queen as something that needs to be tackled. It was a great experience to meet the queen and being awarded. I don’t take it for granted.”

Do you experience any low moments when doing what you do, what keeps you going?

“I sometimes feel the things I’m doing at my age are overwhelming. I am shouldering so much. The girls in school need basic needs, they are chased from school for fees, the parents want to marry them off, and that is challenging. I cannot say I’m taking a break. I sometimes have terrible moments where I break down, I may look strong but I break down when I can’t help almost every time. I’m already a parent to many girls at my age, so many people call me, even men, to ask for assistance on various matters. The campaign has exposed me to a state where people look up to me for help.”

I’m not going to complain that the load is heavy but I’m going to ask God for a stronger back.

It is also important to note that activists like myself need to be cared for, it is not easy dealing and handling victims of violence on a daily basis when you have no support yourself. I need to take care of my mental health.

Do you think FGM will end?

“Yes, I believe FGM will end just that I don’t have the patience knowing that it may take some time with this kind of speed. First we need to team up, work as a team, recognize FGM as both a community and global problem, not as woman’s issue. Men are equally affected too. There will be no development even if leaders put so much focus on developmental activities without tackling retrogressive cultures it is same as treating a disease whose prevention is even better and possible. It will end the moment we agree that it is wrong and that it affects us all, we’ll speak with one voice, pull our resources together and do more than just advocacy. We have to see the value of a girl child and woman beside the dowry and giving babies. We have to ensure that no girl is locked out of school because of poverty, FGM, child marriage or insecurity. FGM will end. This has to be tacked by the community and I appreciate the efforts of the international organizations. They have tried. Now it is time for Africa and its leaders to wake up and end it not continue debating it.”

What next for you and the organization?

“We plan to intensify these campaigns and reach out to more remote villages. We have realized change in the places we’ve gone to and we wish to do more. There is more to be done to start the conversation because there are many places where people do not yet know about the negative implications of FGM.”

I’m looking forward to creating a movement for both men and women to support this. I call myself a big sister, I have found myself doing it and being one all this time. I have owned up that identity.

“My family is so proud of me today, yes they are,” Domtila says as we close the interview.

At a time when the fight to end FGm is facing challenges including the treat to repeal the anti-FGM law and also medicalization of the practice, the efforts of grassroots activists should be fully backed. These organizations are working to reduce the prevalence of FGM in the respective communities and they deserve every support they can get.

Watch out for more stories in the #FightingTheCut series. Stories of young people who are bold enough to speak about and have dedicated themselves to #EndFGM.

Look out for a series on early child marriages on my YouTube channel:https://bit.ly/2ySHi8h

News Reporter
My name is Emmanuel Yegon. Trained Communicator, Passionate storyteller with a bias toward smartphone storytelling. I am the Co-Founder and Communications Director at Mobile Journalism Africa. This platform is dedicated for human interest stories and features. Ask me about #MoJo