Talaso Gababa is a member of the Gabra, a pastoral community based in Marsabit County, Northern Kenya. For the last three years, she has worked with Amref Health Africa to bring an end to Female Genital Mutilation or Cutting (FGM/C) and Child, Early and Forced Marriage (CEFM) in her community.
I was six years old when I was passed through “the cut” at the behest of my grandparents, who are very traditional. In my community, the cut is viewed as a rite of passage into womanhood: a precursor to marriage. When a girl is cut, word will spread from village to village, and men will turn up at her family’s home with gifts in exchange for her hand in marriage. To this day, the cut is still the most traumatising thing that has ever happened to me.
My grandmother wanted me to get married when I was nine, before I had finished primary school, but I knew that I didn’t want to. I cried and cried and begged her to let me stay in school. Eventually, I told my class teacher, who told my dad that I was the brightest student in the class. After that, I was allowed to stay.
Education isn’t viewed as a priority for girls in my community, as they are expected to drop out of school to get married. But I finished high school at the top of my class, and afterwards I went to one of the best universities in Kenya to get my degree in public health.
What work do you do with Amref Health Africa?
I am an End-FGM/C Champion, working with my community to abandon harmful practices like FGM/C and early marriage. I am currently working on the Koota Injena project, which brings together local clan leaders and decision-makers with members of the community for an intergenerational dialogue about the severe physical and psychological impact of practices like FGM/C and CEFM on our girls. Koota Injena translates as “Come, let’s talk” in the Gabra dialect.
By engaging community members at every level, we work to change attitudes and behaviours around these practices, ultimately calling for their complete abandonment. We hold mother-daughter forums for girls to speak about their pain and fears openly with their mothers, who have often been through the same thing.
Recently, we held a meeting with the topmost clan elders. We camped out in the desert for seven days just to speak to them. After many discussions, I am so happy to say that they finally declared their commitment to abandon child, early and forced marriage. It was a wonderful feeling, but we still have a long way to go.
What inspired you to become a community activist?
I spent a long time believing that my experience defined me and undermined myself as “the girl who’d been cut”. I didn’t believe that I could be anything else and was in complete despair. But then I started to realise that my experience is my power. I understood that I can use my story to stand up for other girls who are at risk, so they don’t have to go through what I went through. I am not a victim, I am a voice.
After that realisation, I was committed to becoming a community champion. All I want is for my community to let girls be girls. To let them live a life that they choose, free from FGM/C and early marriage. I want girls to have the same opportunities as boys to pursue their education and make a career for themselves. Above all, I want girls to know that they have a choice: that they can say no to FGM/C and early marriage. That their life is theirs and theirs alone.
What is the biggest challenge you face in your work?
Practices like FGM/C and early marriage are centuries old and deeply anchored. For someone like me, at just 26 years old, to tell a respected clan elder that they need to change such long-established cultural practices, it can be challenging. We are often met with a lot of resistance, particularly from older generations who have never known it any other way. It requires you to think of ways you can work with the community, not against them. After all, this is my community too.
It can be a very hard job. It is completely consuming; there are no days off. Sometimes it can feel like your head is about to burst because there is so much to process. Today, you might get a call about a seven-year-old girl who is going to be cut, but you cannot rescue her alone. You need to involve her family, the school, the police, the wider community, and lots of other people. You need to arrange a safe place for her to stay and make follow-up calls afterwards. Then, before that case has closed, another will pop up.
How has COVID-19 impacted your work?
The impact of COVID on my work has been devastating. I have watched almost three years of work be reversed within a few months. When schools closed, families used it as an opportunity to pass girls through FGM/C or marry them off, knowing that they were no longer protected by schools. Previously, girls would tell classmates that their parents were planning to pass them through the cut, and their classmates would tell the teacher, who would notify the police. Now, that protective network is gone, and cases have skyrocketed. It is truly devastating to see.
What keeps you motivated to fight to end FGM/C and child marriage?
The girls. Everything I do is for the girls. Not for me, not for Amref, but for them. I would break my back for these girls. My greatest happiness is seeing them grow into the women of their dreams. For those of us who have been through FGM/C, there was a time when it felt like it would never be possible to grow into who we are today. My mission is to make sure no other girl has to feel that way. Seeing a father take his six-year-old daughter to school, just like his son: that is what makes it all worth it. That is what I want to see every single day.
Any advice for others wanting to be community activists?
To be a community champion is not a ride in the park. You must embrace it whole-heartedly. You must respect your position as an agent for social change. That means that people will look up to you; they will see you as their inspiration. That is a huge responsibility, because a single slip in your step could mess everything up. People will be looking to you for guidance and strength. So, only take on the responsibility if you are truly ready.
But above everything else, remember who you are doing it for. Keep those people in mind with everything you do. It will get tough; it will feel overwhelming and sometimes it can be disheartening. But no matter what, don’t give up. Never, ever give up.