On a hilltop near Maralal in northern Kenya, in an empty hut, 11-year-old Eunice sat on her muddy bed covered with cow hide. The only light in the small hut was a bonfire she had made for the kettle. She felt cold, although it was warm and sunny outside.
Maybe today is the day that I will run away, she thought.
She looked at the bruises on her arm. The ones from last night were fresh and more painful than the others. When she’d refused to “please” her 78-year-old husband, he’d beaten her as she shielded her head with her arms. Only two weeks earlier, her father had circumcised her and then forced her to marry this man.
It was getting dark outside. She had to hurry along the narrow path through the woods for almost half an hour to get to the nearest village shop and run back home so she could prepare the evening meal before her husband’s arrival.
Five minutes into her walk, she made up her mind. She was actually running before she knew it. Thoughts were racing through her head, as she ran through the woods, into the unknown.
Sitting in the little room she has turned into an office and handling the paperwork for Rosilla – the girl she rescued earlier that week – Josephine Kulea reminisced about her own past. When she was 9 years old, every other week, one of her classmates would stop coming to school. One by one they were first circumcised and then married off to men more than 30 to 40 years older than them, many of whom were already married.
Kulea was somewhat fortunate. Though she was circumcised, she had the support of her mother, who championed her education and resisted family pressure to marry her off at a young age.
She has since helped create the Samburu Girls Foundation, which rescues girls already circumcised or prone to such mutilation. Over 90 percent of the girls in Samburu County go through FGM at a very young age or right before getting married.
“[Our work] is very difficult, because there is no political will or support,” said Kulea, whose organization is a member of The Girl Generation.
Kulea said that even though the law supports her work, the very traditional community adamantly resists any change in these brutal rituals.
In Maralal, the small town in Samburu County where the Samburu Girls Foundation is located, about 30 girls – ages 7 to 16 – live together in a safe house. Though their individual stories vary, all these girls have endured FGM and forced marriages—and in some cases, crude abortions. Some are brought to the safe house by police officers or sympathetic family members. Others find their way to Kulea’s door on their own, with nothing more than the clothes on their back.
Eunice made her way, on foot, to her uncle’s home about 20 kilometers away. He contacted the authorities, who called Kulea. At the Samburu Girls Foundation, Eunice found a safe haven. She was given a school uniform and books, and allowed to continue her studies, something her father had ended when she was 9.
On a recent afternoon, Eunice sat in the grass in front of the safe house as her friends braided her hair. All the girls go to boarding school at a church in Maralal, but were home for their two-month school break. Since coming to the shelter, only three of them have been back to visit their families. The rest are too scared to do so, for fear of being forced into another marriage or painful procedure.
Eunice plans to continue her education. Once grown, she said, she will work to put an end to FGM because it brings too much suffering to the Samburu girls.
“When I become a powerful woman in [the] future, I will ensure that young girls . . . would go to school,” she said, “and spread the gospel of stopping early marriages and female genital mutilation in Samburu.”