The World Health Organisation estimates that between 100 to 140 million girls and women live with the consequences of circumcision or female genital mutilation, a right of passage and a prerequisite to marriage in many societies.
Physically and psychologically painful it is without health benefits and mostly carried out on young girls between infancy and 15 years of age. In Africa alone it is estimated that 92 million girls from the age of 10 have undergone the practice.
But in the Pokot community of highland Kenya, young girls are now fighting back against the process which they call "cutting". They are aided in their struggle by a grassroots movement know as "Abandon the Knife" which fights to change perceptions in a community where the practice of female circumcision has been entrenched for generations.
The Pokot Community have been circumcising or cutting their girls for centuries. It is believed cutting began to stop women straying whilst men were away. Now it is just a way of life.
It is early December and the cutting season has already begun.
"I saw the cutting. [...] They chop it, everything. And it was flat, it was flat and red you couldn't see anything. Somebody sat on our chest. Yeah, one sat on our chest. Somebody sat on our arms. And she was holding her leg, I mean her head, like this. Like you're cutting pieces of meat. And after then I ran. I just ran. I ran. I ran. I couldn't imagine how she was … Really, really painful. I don't want to talk about it anymore," Domtila Chesang, a Pokot girl, says.
Rhoda Lodio, a midwife and member of the Pokot self-help group, says that due to severe bleeding some of the girls shock and at times they even die suddenly.
"The life of our own is decided by a man. Most of the work is done by the women … By undergoing FDM and withstanding the pain they can prove to the community that they can withstand the life here, the harsh life in this community," Rhoda says.
Rhoda says that the practice of circumcising is mostly being done in the the very remote areas of the country.
"And these girls have not yet been empowered with somewhere to run to. The girls themselves see the way their mothers are suffering and that is why they are saying: marriage is like getting into slavery."
Breaking the cycle of pain
"My passion for education is driving me. Look for someone else to cut, so long as it's not me"
Nancy, one Pokot girl fighting against female circumcision
Nancy is 17 years old and her family live on a remote hillside. She is the first born of seven children yet her younger brother has passed her in school already. Her younger sister has already been cut.
But Nancy is a rebel and is refusing to be cut. For a girl of little means Nancy has great hopes.
"In my dreams my ambitions are to get a good job that will give me the ability to support my whole family. What's important is that I become empowered and help myself and people like me. My parents want me to be cut and married off for a dowry."
Nancy's parents believe that Nancy's dowry is their only option to feed their family and to pay for her brother's education. Her mother admits that cutting is is bad and painful, but she believes that nobody would marry Nancy if she was not cut. And she wants her daughter to get married. She herself was married off just like that.
In the local community of Pokot, female circumcision has been entrenched in the traditions of its people for generations. But Nancy is bright, ambitious, wants an education and is determined to break this cycle of pain that is so often a prerequisite for marriage.
"My parents are putting pressure on me to get cut, but I am refusing".
Some of Nancy's friends have also wanted to resist, but lost their case. They have been cut already. But Nancy is determined to stand her ground and tells her mother again and again that she wants to go to school.
"You are just interested in getting the dowry. So if you were to receive five cows, how exactly will you benefit? They can easily die. You can't compare education to cows. You can milk education more than a cow. Do you want me to have to grind stones like you? For how long shall we remain desperate in this dry and barren village? In our backward culture?
"It's a vicious circle of mother daughter, mother daughter... I bury you, then you bury me with the same sorrows instead of forging ahead and help those who are weak. All I want to hear is that you and my father will try and find the money." Nancy says.
Although her mother is thinking about Nancy's words she still says that they have been trying to help finance Nancy's brother's education with Nancy's cutting because he is in secondary school already.
"Boys and girls are equal [...] I can see a flood coming and all you people just want to hold us back. I'm moving forward, moving forward. I'm heading for the land of milk and honey. My passion for education is driving me. Look for someone else to cut, so long as it's not me," Nancy says.
Finally her mother says that she has accepted Nancy's decision. She has realised that her daughter is really determined to go to school, so she is not longer pushing for circumcision. Her parents have decided not to deny Nancy's education just because she is a girl.
Stigma and superstition
Veronica, another Pokot girl, unlike Nancy, was cut, then married and is now pregnant for the first time. She thinks she is about 15 years old. She lives too far from town to go to school. She has little understanding of what a woman who has been cut and sewn up will experience when giving birth.
"Veronica will face many difficulties because she has been circumcised. In our community we believe that if a mother is pregnant and she's almost to deliver, her grave is open," Rhoda Lodio says.
Women who have been cut heal in a way which leaves just a tiny hole for urinating but when it comes to child birth they need an episiotomy.
"She'll be given a home episiotomy whereby anything can be used to cut, for example a piece of iron sheet which is left there if they are not prepared, if the labour is just precipitated. And it happens like that because the passage is very tight," Rhoda says.
A common practice is to cut young girls like Veronica before they are old enough to resist. Once cut, marriage follows. Yet these girls often do not have wide enough pelvises to deliver a child. If they cannot go to hospital they could die.
A group of men and women is trying to replace cutting with an alternative rite of passage which gives girls a chance to become women without being cut. The grassroots self-help group is called Kepsteno Rotwo -"Abandon The Knife."
The real roots of cutting are lost in time, yet it is so much the organising principal of Pokot culture that this group is struggling to find ways to tackle the stigma and superstition which are barriers to change.
Rhoda is an educated Pokot woman and midwife who has experienced it first hand.
"Those who are not circumcised, they are not married. The men also fear that 'I marry uncircumcised woman, I'll be laughed at in the community. People will not value me.' Unless we remove the stigma, there's no way it will stop," Rhoda says.
For months these men and women have been spreading the word and recruiting for their alternative rite of passage ceremony. "So far we are afraid that just 130 girls are willing to come and join this alternative ceremony," Rhoda says.
But the self help group know that until Pokot men choose to value uncut women, change is impossible. The group persuade men whenever they can to change their minds.
'Cows, cows and more cows'
Gertrude is another Pokot girl who is resisting being cut. Until now she has been the ideal daughter: obedient and hard working, the apple of her father's eye, and his only girl child. She is also a bright girl with big ambitions. She would be on the cusp of secondary school, if only her father believed in educating girls.
"She is a very special child to me. I love her so much. In fact my boys are not so special to me and that's why I want her to get married," Emmanuel Komoli, Gertrude's father, says.
But Gertrude wants to pursue her education and wants to become a doctor, once she has finished school.
To avoid being cut Gertrude has run away from home and is seeking refuge at her grandmother's house.
"Some of our neighbours started their cutting ceremonies and singing. My daughter disappeared and so I asked my wife where she was, because she had hinted that she was ready for cutting this season," Emmanuel says.
Jane Komoli, Gertrude's mother, admits that she encouraged Gertrude to run away and hide in her grandmother's house. "I arranged her transport while I worked out how to convince her father," Jane says.
Gertrude's father says that somebody has already brought him beer and cows as a dowry. He is angry because his daughter is refusing to be cut.
"I've never seen a girl in my family who has not been cut. If she is against cutting, we will take her by force."
Gertrude is still safe with her grandmother, but her mother, Jane, is struggling to convince Gertrude's father to change his mind because a suitor is on his way with the cows and he feels committed. Her father also fears the stigma and says that he will be "a laughing stock when people are enjoying the beers they get for their daughters."
But Jane is not giving in. "I didn't go though labour pains for my daughter to be sold like that. I will not cut my daughter for that. Why do you think our daughter does not get married? Our neighbour's daughter was not cut. She went to secondary school and got a job and is happily married to a doctor in Karss. That lady received a large dowry."
Her husband blames her to be responsible for their daughter's behaviour, saying that Jane encouraged her. But she is worried about her daughter's health and understands her wish to go to school.
"In the old days they only cut mature girls. Now many girls have been cut too young and have developed birth complications. I think Gertrude is too young to get cut," she says.
Although Emmanuel is angry Jane hopes that he will change his mind. She decides to ask the self help group to talk to her husband.
After a few days Gertrude's father is worried that his daughter could, if pressed, commit suicide. And his wife's arguments that education could give his family far greater wealth than a dowry of cows has begun to sink in.
The self help group finally manage to convince him to reconsider cutting Gertrude. He finally understands that education is of more value than cows and it is not worth risking his daughter's life and agrees to send Gertrude to school.
"I think us Pokot men are a little crazy. We just want cows, cows and more cows," he says.
We do not have online rights for Abandon the Knife, but this episode of People & Power can be seen on Al Jazeera English from Wednesday, May 25, at the following times GMT: Wednesday: 2230; Thursday: 0930; Friday: 0330; Saturday: 1630; Sunday: 2230; Monday: 0930.
Source: Al Jazeera