March 12, 2021
Photography by Jason Shipley
Words by Karin Svadlenak Gomez
Jason Shipley is a British documentary photographer from Kingston upon Hull. When Jason traveled to Kenya, he made an effort to get to know one of the most remote and rarely visited tribes, the Pokot. They live a very hard life, he told us, and he was truly impacted by what he learned about their way of life. One of the hardest things to deal with was the issue of female circumcision, which, although outlawed, is still being practiced. Some of the girls manage to escape this painful and dangerous tradition. In Jason's photos he tells the story of one such girl, and the people from her community.
The Pokot people live in West Pokot County and Baringo County in Kenya and in the Pokot District of the eastern Karamoja region in Uganda. Jason Shipley visited this area, which is hardly visited by tourists, for a photo reportage. Road networks and infrastructure of the Pokot community are poor, so travel within the region and to the region is time-consuming. To visit you need the tribal elders' permission. For Jason the harshness of these people's living conditions, and the fate of many young girls was emotionally quite overwhelming. Although officially illegal in Kenya, many girls in this ethnic group are still subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM).
Jason was able to visit and speak to several girls, some who had escaped this fate with the help of local Non-government Organisations (NGOs), and some who had not.
FGM can lead to severe pain, bleeding and tetanus or sepsis and other infection and wound issues right after the procedure, and in the long run it can cause recurrent bladder and urinary tract infections, cysts, an increased risk of childbirth complications and newborn death. The women often experience pain during sexual intercourse.
Gladys had her baby with problems because, as it turned out, she had already had FGM before. Gladys did receive an education at the school as well, but the school was not aware that she had had FGM. Eleven hours after giving birth Gladys sat her school exam in the maternity hospital, in pain. The rules state she had to wear her school uniform, and because of her pregnancy she was obviously bigger and the clothing was too tight.
In societies where FGM is practiced, it is usually justified by upholding tradition and by the threat of negative social consequences for girls if they are not circumcised, foremost not being able to find a husband.
FGM is also considered an important rite of passage into adulthood. In the Pokot community, girls are cut when they are between 10 to 17 years old. The Pokot regularly disregard the legal prohibition of female circumcision. To be clear, this is a practice that is not only inflicted on girls by the Pokot, it is widespread, mainly in African countries. The UN estimates that more than 200 million girls and women in 30 countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia have been circumcised.
In the Pokot community early/child marriage or forced marriage of female girls with elderly men is also a common practice. It is customary for families to receive a bride price. According to Jason, the price for a bride who has had FGM was 25 cows, plus 2 cases of soda and bags of sugar. Girls who had not had FMG would earn the family only 15 cows. To put this into context, the average wage in Pokot per day is the equivalent of US$2. The poverty is extreme in the area. Most people live in huts or tin houses without any insulation from heat and cold and no running water or toilets.
There are several international and local charitable or development organisations who are trying to educate Pokot communities about the harms of the FGM practice, and who offer an alternative through education opportunities for girls. Jason visited the British charity One Woman at a Time, which was started by Jean Anderson a retired midwife from Lancashire, that is helping as many girls from the Pokot region as they can to get schooling and to help the villages with poverty reduction. The organisation also has programmes to educate the fathers, brothers and sons about the hazards of FGM, trying to change mindsets.
Another organisation, The Girl Generation’s End FGM Grassroots Fund, has also been trying to educate communities to give up FGM, introducing the idea of an alternative rite of passage celebration in combination with graphic explanatory videos and witness statements from circumcised women. This appears to be having an impact, and one can hope that such efforts will eventually spread across the entire community.
Through One Woman at a Time organisation Jason met Salome, who has been able to find a better life. Salome was to marry an old man who already had three wives, and her parents planned on cutting her, but Salome overheard the conversation, and she ran away across the mountains. She was able to go to the boarding school in Ortum, where girls who find a sponsor can receive an education and escape FGM. Salome has since found her own partner and has a baby now. She ended up studying at Mount Kenya University. For her, getting an education was life-changing. "She has her own life and choices now," says Jason.
All the girls One Woman at a Time sponsors get to go to school for free, the only condition being that the parents do not circumcise them. Next to the school sponsored by One Woman at a Time is a clinic where the girls can give birth. That way, they can deliver their babies safely and also continue their education.
There are other girls who are not as lucky. Despite legal prohibitions in Kenya, FGM is still very widely practiced, and the old cultural norms have a stronghold in the Pokot community.
“It was traumatic and sad what I witnessed,” says Jason. “I’ve worked in Africa for over ten years in some of the world’s poorest countries but I never expected the harsh lives of the Pokot people in Kenya, a country where Europeans enjoy their holidays.”