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The story of a Kenyan woman's escape from genital mutilation

British Prime Minister David Cameron at the first UN-backed Girl Summit, aimed at mobilizing domestic and international efforts to end female genital mutilation, in London on July 22.

By Marianna Kakaounaki

Everyone who knows her speaks of a kind, low-key woman who only rarely shares her story. The 42-year-old Kenyan, who wished to remain anonymous, just barely escaped deportation from Greece back to Kenya, where she faced the threat of female genital mutilation.

She has spent the past few years living in the central Athenian neighborhood of Kypseli with her youngest son, aged 3. Her two older boys are currently in state care due to her financial woes. The elder of the two just finished third grade and his teachers describe him as a “total sweetheart,” while the younger is about to start kindergarten. The family is reunited on the weekends, attending church every Sunday. The bureaucratic procedures to get the family over to the United States so mother and children can rejoin the father in New York are under way, though the process is both complicated and time-consuming. The 42-year-old's biggest fear is not that something will happen to prevent the trip across to the US but that she may be deported back to Kenya. As she recently told a Greek court, she would face the threat of torture and genital mutilation is she were forced to go back.

The anonymous woman is a Kikuyu, the largest ethnic group in the East African country. Her father came from a town called Murang'a, the home of the Mungiki, a dangerous extremist group that has been active since 1980 and branded a terrorist organization by authorities. The woman herself was born in Mombasa, where she spent a carefree childhood. When her father lost his job, the family was forced to move to Murang'a. She was just 10 at the time, but knew that there was one secret she could never share with her fellow villagers: that she had not undergone a cliterectomy, a ritual imposed, often brutally, on the girls and women by Mungiki and practiced in parts of Africa for more than 300 years.

A few years later the Mungiki leadership launched a campaign to locate all the women in the town who had not undergone the the procedure. She was named by a former boyfriend. Her ordeal began.

On her parents urging, she fled Murang'a and moved to Nairobi, where she opened a hair salon. She never spoke about her background. Her secret, however, came out and for years she payed a portion of her earnings over to blackmailers (whom she has not identified) in order to ensure that she was not turned over to the Mungiki. In 2001, when she gave birth to her first son and was abandoned by the boy's father, she told her blackmailers that she could no longer afford the payments. They refused to budge and launched an intimidation campaign against her. Men would turn up outside her house at night, yelling that she was a single mother and a disgrace to her tribe. They swore at her and threatened her with violence. After they broke into her hair salon and smashed all of her equipment she decided it was time to go. She gathered what money she could and on September 3, 2002 boarded a plane to Greece.

In Athens, she found work as a cleaning lady in homes and hotels. She had a green card, her social security contributions were being paid, and she was soon able to arrange for her son to join her in Greece. She had her second child in 2009 and a short time later met her husband. They were married, had a third child together, bringing the family to five, and planned for the future. The crisis, however, changed everything. She lost her job and her insurance. She was forced to put her two older boys into institutions because she could no longer care for them. Without papers, she was at risk of deportation and in August 2013 she filed her first application for asylum.

The Public Order Ministry department responsible for processing asylum requests has received 10 applications from women who have suffered through genital mutilation or claim to be at risk of being forced to undergo such procedures in the past year.

“Six of the 10 requests were granted and they were given international immunity,” Maria Stavropoulou, head of the service, told Kathimerini, explaining that confidentiality laws prevent her from discussing any of these cases or the ones that were rejected in detail – such as that of the 42-year-old Kenyan woman. The decision that was issued over her particular application, however, shows that her case was turned over to the Interior Ministry, where she was told that she could apply for a residence permit in Greece on humanitarian grounds.

Overwhelmed by the bureaucracy and with the threat of deportation looming, the 42-year-old eventually sought help at the Athens Bar Association. The association referred her to Mara Mastrogeorgopoulou, a young lawyer and member of the Association of Greek Women in Legal Professions (EEN), a nonprofit group that specializes in defending women's rights. Within three months the young lawyer had filed a request for the asylum decision to be reversed with the Administrative Appeals Court. She provided details of her client's story, an account of the heinous actions attributed to the Mungiki organization and a history of female genital mutilation in Kenya.

“The literature provides plenty of examples of how this traditional rite, which dates back 300 years, is incredibly difficult to be uprooted despite laws prohibiting it,” the 26-year-old lawyer told Kathimerini. “Such practices persist today and constitute torture and the inhuman and degrading treatment of women.”

The Administrative Appeals Court agreed to lift the order of deportation, allowing the 42-year-old and her three children to remain in the country under a special protection status until a final decision is made regarding their long-term fate.

ekathimerini.com , Thursday August 28, 2014 (18:07)  
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