Choosing the Path Less Travelled
A renowned educator turned activist, Sr Ephigenia Gachiri ibvm has dedicated much of her life to the fight against the harmful practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) otherwise known as the silent ‘killer of joy’. She has made such a vast impact in the way FGM is understood both locally and abroad that she was recently featured in The Tablet as one of the top 50 Minds that Matter.
Since 1998 Sr Ephigenia has darted across the country in her ute bringing her message to the most remote and disadvantaged corners of Kenya. Through years of community consultation she has taken a two-pronged approach to combatting this age-old issue, not only by educating parents, teachers and the girls themselves about the dangers of “the cutting”, but also by providing an alternative ceremony to help the girls, without undergoing this mutilation, gain the cultural maturity that the FGM ceremony provides.
Fast forward 21 years since Sr Ephigenia started on this crusade. Her tireless commitment is nothing short of inspirational. As a result, on 2 March 2019 the Loreto Abundant Life Centre was officially opened. The Abundant Life Centre is the ultimate product born of Sr Ephigenia’s tireless campaigning to end FGM by providing alternative solutions to this harmful practice.
The centre serves the following purposes:
- National training of campaigners across Kenya to work in the villages as facilitators for the Rite of Passage for girls, as an alternative to FGM, and for boys, as a replacement for outdated traditional male circumcision rituals;
- Offer psychological and spiritual healing for traumatised FGM survivors and their families;
- Conduct research on the root causes of FGM, followed by the dissemination of these findings;
- Produce and translate FGM campaign tools such as books, calendars, DVD’s, teaching manuals and pamphlets;
- Become a National Resource Centre for FGM related matters.
The early years
Ephigenia grew up in a village during the State of Emergency in Kenya in the 1950s and early 1960s. Her mother was a Loreto past student and teacher, and her father a civil servant. Sr Ephigenia recalls, “Women were the worst hit by poverty, disease and famine. I witnessed many diseases and useless deaths, especially of young children, that could have been avoided by basic knowledge of hygiene and use of proper diet.”
Her parents sent Ephigenia to Loreto Limuru High School, where her vocation was nurtured to help women and girls lift themselves out of oppressive conditions through education. In February 1965 Ephigenia joined the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary (IBVM) and was one of the first two Africans to join the order.
Ephigenia trained at the Kenya Science Teachers College in Nairobi, obtained a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Calcutta in India, a Master of Arts at Birmingham University in England and a PhD at Kenyatta University, Kenya. In 1995 she represented religious sisters at the United Nations’ Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. Learning about the horror and global scale of FGM on that occasion changed her life dramatically. The sheer numbers of survivors (over 200 million today) moved her to take immediate action.
The Courage to Act
Over the last 20 years Sr Ephigenia has spent hundreds of hours, seated on dusty floors or low wooden stools in people’s homes, openly and patiently listening to dialogue from the community elders, family, friends and women cutters about the tradition of female cutting.
It was through community consultation and collaboration that Sr Ephigenia garnered as much insight into this cultural practice as she could before deciding to write her first book (now one of four) and turn her passion into much needed activism.
Cause for Recognition
Her total commitment to this vitally important social justice issue is nothing short of inspirational. Former IBVM Representative at the UN, Sr Anne Kelly ibvm says of her: “Sr Ephigenia has been part of our story for decades and is the only person I know who has stuck with the difficult issue of FGM, year in and year out, despite all sorts of disappointments and setbacks.”
What is FGM?
According to the World Health Organization, female genital mutilation is defined as any procedure that alters female genital organs for non-medical reasons. Cultural reasons for FGM include preserving a girl’s virginity, controlling her sexuality so she will not cheat on her husband, and promoting characteristics like obedience and passivity.
More than 130 million girls and women alive today have undergone the ceremonial cutting in the 29 countries where it is practiced, mostly in Africa and parts of the Arab world. The World Health Organization reports that there are about two to three million women who undergo the mutilation in Africa every year, or at least 6,000 per day.