Edna Kambura was only seven years old when she had “the cut” – female genital mutilation – in her village in central Kenya.
“It still hurts to think about it,” said the 16-year-old, carrying a toddler on her back as she walked to a borehole to fetch water.
“The other girls and I weren’t allowed to cry, or we would get beaten up,” she said.
Female genital mutilation (FGM), a practice involving the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, can cause hemorrhage, shock, complications in childbirth, fistula or death.
Kenya has seen a sharp decline in the internationally condemned ritual, but it remains deeply entrenched among several ethnic groups.
To help give women more power and debunk myths that shore up practices like FGM, women’s groups are being set up in Kenya’s Tharaka Nithi County to teach farming and business skills.
The Grassroots Development Initiatives Foundation, a Kenyan charity, has helped create over 100 such groups across the region, with women meeting regularly to learn skills such as how to grow drought-resistant crops.
“FGM exists to control women and girls,” said Gladys Miriti, head of the foundation.
“But if we can empower them to speak out and earn their own income, then society will look at them differently and let them make their own decisions with their bodies,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Female genital mutilation is all too common, local women say.
“FGM is hard to get rid of,” said Mercy Kawira, an elderly former cutter from Kajuki village. She herself was cut as a child.
“People believe a girl has to be circumcised so she is socially accepted and can get a husband,” she said.
The women’s groups aim to raise awareness of the damaging physical and mental impacts of FGM on girls, through presentations by county health professionals, explained Miriti.
Such meetings are open to men as well as women, she said.
Christine Kirimi, a mother of six who joined one women’s group in Kajuki village in 2014, said she used to “consider ‘cut’ women more respectable”.
“But I hadn’t realised how dangerous it can be, that you can die from it,” she said, adding that although her two eldest daughters were cut she will spare her third one.
Highlighting the dangers of FGM is just one aspect of stamping out the practice, Miriti said.
“In patriarchal societies women don’t have a voice. They don’t get to decide anything for themselves of their families,” she explained.
“So we thought that by training them to be farmers and earn an income, we could force men to take them seriously.”
Having an income of their own gives them greater influence with their husbands on how to raise their daughters and a stronger hand to refuse FGM, Miriti said.
Extension officers from the Kenyan Ministry of Agriculture train women on how to grow drought-resistant crops such as sorghum and millet, how to experiment with organic fertilisers and how to plant in unplowed land to save water.
The groups also act as savings cooperatives groups, with members contributing from 100 to 1,000 shillings ($1-$10) per week.
Purity Gateria, a fruit farmer who chairs one of the groups, said women’s farming not only produces more food for domestic consumption but can help lift women out of poverty.
“Any woman can be a farmer. They just need to know where to start and how to increase their yields,” she explained.
Miriti said the training programmes are helping shift people’s attitudes and beliefs, with a majority of group members now shunning FGM.
Even some cutters are putting down the knife to turn to farming, she said – mostly because it is more profitable.
Kawira says she used to make up to 1,000 shillings ($10) per cut.
“But business is a lot worse since the government has declared the practice illegal [in 2011],” she said. Now she keeps cows, goats and chickens, and grows sorghum for East African Breweries, a Kenyan beverage company.
“Now I earn money without making anyone cry or leaving wounds that take forever to heal,” she added.
This article was written by Caroline Wambui and edited by Zoe Tabary and Laurie Goering for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience.
Caroline is a Kenyan freelance journalist who focuses on climate change, farming and education, among other issues. She is currently studying for a master’s degree in literature at Chuka University.