KEHANCHA, KENYA —
Each February, the United Nations holds the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation, or FGM. The practice is believed to affect more than 140 million girls and women globally.
The United Nations has pledged since 2012 to eliminate FGM, and billions of dollars have been spent creating awareness of the dangers it creates. But in a remote rural district in southwest Kenya, the practice is deeply rooted, and the community doesn't shy away from what it is doing.
They dance along the highway and in the roads that connect the remote villages. Everyone is in a celebratory mood, for a circumcision ceremony has just been completed.
Practiced with impunity
Circumcision for boys is legal in Kenya. Female genital mutilation is not. But the Kuria community in southwest Kenya openly practices female circumcision, and no police officer dares to stop them.
Some police officers and government officials who did not want to appear on camera told VOA they were outnumbered and the community would turn against them if they tried to act.
Away from the streets, VOA caught up with two teenage girls who underwent the cut that morning.
You could see the trauma on their faces, even as an elderly woman tried to cheer them up and assure them of their rightful place in Kuria society.
They are prepared and ready to join the rest of the girls who have been circumcised, which signals their transition into adulthood.
A stone's throw away from the celebration, a church is hosting more than 20 girls who have been rescued from the cut.
In the church they are taught three main subjects: mathematics, English and religious studies.
In today's religious studies class they learn what the Bible says about female genital mutilation.
Pendo Gati is a survivor of FGM and a high school graduate. She said she felt unsafe in the community.
"My parents didn't want that, but the clan are forcing girls to be circumcised, and, for me, I don't see any importance of being circumcised as a girl. So I decided to come here and look for a better place to be," she said.
Those who have escaped circumcision, turning against centuries of tradition, have faced abuse and curses.
Robi Marwa, a head teacher at a secondary school, said, "During my wedding, when I was getting married here at this church, Taranganya, some people from my home where I come from -- you know what they were saying: 'Yes, the wedding is good, but they are not going to see a leg of a child.' The people were asking, 'Why is she not going to see the leg of a child? She is already cursed, she can't give birth.'"
That curse and bad-mouthing are in the past today. She has four children, is a university graduate and has become a role model to many girls in her community.
Florence Gachanja works with the United Nations Population Fund to combat FGM. She said that despite the open celebrations in the streets of Kuria, people are working hard to fight the practice.
But the FGM prevalence rate stands at about 27 percent nationally in Kenya, and officials that say in some areas the practice is still very common.