Guardian of the Girl-Child

In a Kenyan town, one woman seeks justice for victims of sexual violence neglected by an inept government and overburdened police force. To those in her community she is a meddler, avenger, and last resort. For the women she helps, she is nothing less than a savior.

Photographs by Will Swanson

On a sunny afternoon in November 2015, police officers from Marsabit, Kenya, were driving north along a bumpy dirt road, heading toward the village of Segel. There were two officers in the car, but it was the woman in the passenger seat who was navigating their journey, issuing directions in a firm and steady voice. They were pursuing a man who had been accused of raping a 14-year-old girl.

The police had found the man in question a few days earlier and tried to arrest him quietly, but he denied guilt and refused to come to the station for questioning. Reluctant to use force, the police returned without him.

This woman, however, was determined to bring the man into custody. She wasn’t their superior or even a member of the police force, but the officers followed her orders until they reached the place where men like to gather under a large tree to chew khat. The car slowed to a stop, and the woman peered through the window until her eyes landed on a group of three men.

She stepped out of the car, a shock of bright color in her robe-like dress. With the cops walking in step beside her, she greeted the figures lounging in the shade, told them she was looking for someone, and gave them the suspect’s name.

One of the men announced that he was the one she was looking for.

She smiled and introduced herself.

“I’ve heard of you,” the man said. And without protest, he stood up and walked to the car.

Along with other volunteers at the Marsabit Women’s Advocacy Development Organization, female genital mutilation survivor Helen Halake, 55, monitors the community and identifies families intending to subject their girls to FGM or marry off their underage daughters.

Early most mornings, Nuria Gollo walks to her office in pastoral Marsabit, a small town located an eight-hour drive north of the capital, Nairobi. Most likely, there will already be a group of people waiting outside her door. On a slow day, there are around 10. On a busy one, the line could snake 50 yards down the road. Even on the weekends, when the office is closed, strangers will call or knock on her door. They have all come to seek her help.

Gollo is short and round with broad shoulders, but she wears sandals with a small wedge and stands so straight that she seems much taller than her 5-foot-3 frame. She owns countless flowing dresses in vibrant sunset reds and oranges and emerald green, which she pairs with matching headscarves that unravel every time she waves her arms. She douses herself in Dior perfume, and her scent lingers long after she departs. At 48, she has few wrinkles and her laugh is easy and loud. But when Gollo is angry her tone turns so sharply it can change a room’s temperature.

Since founding the Marsabit Women’s Advocacy Development Organization (MWADO) in 2003, Gollo has made it her mission to bring justice to every victimized woman in her community. A former teacher, she is also a trained paralegal but her work now is far more involved and multifaceted. On any given day, she is a detective, cop, lawyer, mediator, therapist, or social worker. Gollo takes on dozens of cases each week, ranging from sexual assault and domestic violence to disputes over child support, land rights, and cattle raiding. In recent years she has crashed a child marriage ceremony to rescue the underage bride, exposed a school principal who was setting up his female students for marriages with local men, and tracked down women who were illegally arranging to mutilate young girls’ genitals. The one who was paid to perform the cutting is now serving a five-year term behind bars.

Armed with only an iPhone 5s in a gold case and a reputation that precedes her, Gollo is something of a celebrity in her hometown. Stories of her prowess, like the one of her leading the police to the rapist, are ubiquitous, and their reach stretches far beyond Marsabit’s borders. Men fear her, women revere her, and the police are the first to admit they need her.

“She is a godsend,” said Irene Charo, a police officer who works with Gollo to solve cases of gender-based violence. “What I know about Nuria is she is fighting for the girl-child.”

Chirri Kossi, 40, a local campaigner against female genital mutilation and a volunteer with the Women’s Advocacy Development Organiza­tion, is the wife of a local chief. She uses her position to educate women about the dangers of FGM.

On a December morning, two dozen women are seated around long tables in a dimly lit conference room at the Nomads Trail Hotel in Marsabit. They have just finished snacking on beef samosas and milky chai tea. Lying neatly in front of each woman is a brand-new notebook and pen.

Gollo stands at the front of the room.

“How many of you were cut as children?” she asks in Kiswahili. Every woman raises her hand. “And how many of you enjoy having sex?” All the hands go down. She smiles and nods; Gollo knew the answer before she asked the question.

“You work all day, you do the wash, and at night you complain that you are sick even when you are not sick,” she says. “That is the way we have to survive.” Her audience hums, sounding in agreement. “After you have refused many times, your husband will go outside to look for illegal affairs. There is so much quarreling. There is so much fighting.” The crowd agrees louder this time. Then she turns to a poster board and points to the words “Female Genital Mutilation” written at the top.

All of the women in this room were once vulnerable girl-children — all of them, including Gollo.

There are no health benefits for women subjected to FGM. In fact, it can cause lifelong medical problems, including recurring urinary tract infections, which can lead to renal failure, as well as vaginal infections and painful complications during sex and childbirth.

Surgeries to reverse the effects of genital cutting are exceedingly rare. And the practice remains prevalent in many northern Kenyan communities. Women who support FGM say it keeps them clean and prevents lustful behavior and prostitution. Genital cutting is also a big business — women pay midwives varying amounts to perform the cut, with some earning upward of $25 for the procedure, which can range from pricking the clitoris with a needle to removing it and parts of the labia, and then sewing up what’s left of the labia, leaving just enough room for the victim to urinate and menstruate. Gollo experienced the latter.

She was around 10 years old when a group of women from her village gathered the girls in her neighborhood to bring them to her grandmother, a traditional midwife, for what they were told was a special ceremony. The girls were excited; their mothers had promised that after the festivities, they would receive gifts and eat meat for the rest of the week. But instead, four women spread their legs and held them down while Gollo’s grandmother used a razor blade to cut out their clitorises.

“If you cry, you are a coward,” she remembers her grandmother telling her.

“They put clothes in your mouth so you don’t scream. Then they say, ‘Now you are a full woman.’ They said they went through the same.” For the two weeks after she cut her, Gollo’s grandmother kept her legs bound together with rope to ensure she wouldn’t reopen the wound.

When she was 16, Gollo’s father forced her to drop out of school so he could marry her off to a 38-year-old man in exchange for a cow, about $190, 15 pieces of clothing, tobacco, tea leaves, cooking oil, sugar, and coffee beans. The marriage was miserable from the start. Her husband was an aggressive man who beat her regularly. Unable to avoid his demands for sex, she suffered the tremendous pain of intercourse, a result of the scar tissue from the cutting. It wasn’t long before she was pregnant. The labor of her first child, a son named Abdulrizak, was excruciating and the recovery took months. After two years and the painful birth of a second son, Mohamed, Gollo had had enough. Though it went against convention, and the wishes of her father, she divorced her husband. Even after her father ordered her husband to track her down, beat her, and bring her home, Gollo refused.

Formerly a traditional birth attendant and practitioner of female genital mutilation, Chukulisa Jarso, 78, stopped performing the procedure in 2008, when an initial law banning FGM was enacted and her eyesight began to fail. “I did it for financial reasons. People respect you for this job,” she said. Jarso estimates that she performed FGM on 100 girls.

By the time she was 22, she was free from her first marriage and her father’s reach. She had completed her secondary school education and began teaching at a local primary school. She married again, this time to a fellow teacher, Abdulkadir Kaaru. They had three children together, a boy named Yassin, who is now 21, and two girls, Sulekha, 19, and Fardosa, 11.

In 2000, after years of informally counseling women in her community on their concerns about health, marriage, and gender inequity, Gollo told her husband that she wanted to quit her teaching job to work in advocacy full time. He helped her write grants and send proposals to international organizations, and she received some small initial funding from SNV Netherlands Development Organization. Within three years, she had enough outside funding to officially launch MWADO and set up an office in town. She has continued to support her organization by procuring funding from international NGOs like ActionAid. Through MWADO, she provides transport for some community members who visit the organization for workshops on how to develop business skills, or put an end to FGM and domestic violence. Gollo says she gives herself a salary of $300 a month, enough to eat and pay for housing but not much else.

Built into the side of an inactive volcano, Marsabit is a dusty town interrupted by low-rising hills that, until last year, could not be reached by paved road. The main drag is boisterous and busy, with countless vegetable stands and duka, the Kenyan equivalent of the New York bodega, where locals gather to buy phone credit and share the latest gossip. Downtown, groups of men who work driving boda bodas (motorcycle taxis), cluster on corners while others squat on the red-dirt side streets, where they chew khat and play bao, a popular board game. Home to about 25,000 people, Marsabit is the capital of a county of arid plains and volcanic craters around 100 miles south of the Ethiopian border, where pastoralist communities roam in search of fields to graze their camels, cows, and goats.

In recent years, when violent clashes have broken out between pastoralists competing over dwindling land and water, Gollo has organized the women she’s counseled or trained at her community workshops to stand up to their husbands and demand peaceful negotiations between the warring ethnic groups. “Nuria has never started anything and left it pending,” said Guyo Golicha Huka, a local government official. “The peace we are enjoying up to today is thanks to her.”

Dahabo Mohamed, 32, was left destitute when her husband abandoned the family. But under pressure from Nuria Gollo’s local community organization, he has started to pay welfare to support the family.

From the Outside, it might appear that Gollo is working around Kenya’s judicial system. But it’s more apt to say that her work in Marsabit is a compromise between two conflicting structures: traditional, pre-colonial dispute settlement tactics passed down by elders and Kenya’s courtroom legal system, which remains foreign to pastoralists like those living in rural Marsabit County. “Local people and traditionalists fear the government so much,” she said. “When you take something to court, sometimes it brings a lot of hiccups.”

In 2016, the Kenyan chief justice tasked a group of legal experts, elders, and social scientists with traveling across the country to investigate how traditional dispute-resolution programs were being used, encouraging them to help mediators determine which cases to resolve on their own and which to release to a formal court. (The latter category includes incidents of murder and sexual violence and complaints filed by minors.) “As part of the crisis of modernization in many African countries, the organic dispute resolution processes withered away,” said Kenyan High Court Justice Joel Ngugi, who chairs the commission. Due to financial constraints and alienation from the formal justice system, many people have given up trying to solve cases. These people have to accept the limits of a flawed system, Ngugi said. When that happens, women and children usually suffer the most.

In rural families near Marsabit, women handle the bulk of household duties. They manage the livestock, build their families’ shelters, take care of children, and walk for miles each day to collect water. Although the majority of girls in town now finish high school, those living in rural areas rarely make it past eighth grade. Even after Kenya banned FGM in 2011, Gollo says 90 percent of girls in the isolated northern region are still cut. “Pastoralist men don’t want their wives to work,” Gollo said. “They want women to take care of them like babies.”

Although the decisions Gollo reaches in her office are not legally binding, the aim is to find a permanent resolution. In circumstances where she won’t be able to resolve a matter on her own, Gollo helps guide the victim through the more formal legal process. Dahabo Mohamed, 32, was taking care of one child and pregnant with another when the father of her children, a police officer, abruptly left her in 2004. She didn’t know Gollo personally, but had heard of MWADO and showed up at the office for help. Gollo summoned the man and tried to talk through ways for him to financially support his children, but he refused to pay child support and wouldn’t negotiate. So Gollo contacted the police. Local officers arrested him, and in a formal court, a judge determined that money would be taken out of his paycheck and sent to Mohamed each month. “He was very embarrassed,” Mohamed said of her husband. “Nuria supported me. She advised me, made sure court was going smoothly, went to his boss’s office to make sure he showed up to court, and she still follows up to make sure I’m paid.”

Orge Galgallo, 52, a former practitioner of female genital mutilation, started performing the procedure when clients for her services as a traditional birth attendant opted for clinic deliveries. “I was paid around 200 shillings ($2) to circumcise a girl,” she said. Galgallo gave up the practice when she discovered that FGM causes complications during childbirth.

Still, there are limits to what organizations like MWADO can achieve. However exalted she might be, Gollo doesn’t always succeed. Beyond the failings of the Kenyan criminal justice system, Gollo is fighting deeply engrained patriarchy, fear, and resentment of authority, which cannot always be addressed with private intervention. In 2005, MWADO received a tip that two sisters, ages 9 and 11, had gone missing from a village outside of town. A few days after they disappeared, the girls returned home in a daze, their clothes torn and bloody. They told their parents that a local police officer had kidnapped them, force-fed them alcohol, and raped them. Gollo drove out to the parents’ house and asked them to let MWADO team up with a pro-bono lawyer and help them with the case. If they took the officer to court, Gollo explained, their daughters could see justice for what was done to them. But the cop had already offered the parents cash in exchange for not pursuing legal action against him. Fearing the notorious delays and expenses associated with court, they accepted his settlement. Friends later warned Gollo that the officer knew of her intervention in the case and had promised that if he had the opportunity, he “would finish this woman.”

That police officer is one of a number of people who have opposed Gollo — mostly traditionalist men who view her as overstepping her authority, both as an activist and a woman. Fatuma Kurungu, one of Gollo’s colleagues who helps train community members to report violence against women, said that when Gollo tried to gather enough information to take the school principal to court for selling girls off to marriage, many members of the community refused to help. “They were so secretive, they didn’t want to assist us,” she said. “Especially men are afraid of her, because they know her reputation and know she is working with the government.” Although the principal’s crimes were widely acknowledged in his community, the case never went to trial.

Gollo is aware of the personal risks that come with her work, but she doesn’t have the means to pay for security. Instead, she follows a strict routine. Every evening at 6:30, she locks her gate and doesn’t open it until morning. She never walks alone at night. When necessary, she works through intermediaries so that it isn’t clear to the public that she is involved in sensitive cases. “My family worries,” she said. “They say, ‘You are going to be killed.’ Some family members even cry and say, ‘We don’t want to lose you. Stop doing this job.’”

But none of this — the government’s failure to address sexual assault, the high number of unsolved cases, or even the potential danger she could encounter — seems to deter Gollo or dampen her faith in the work she does.

Sometimes after she hits an obstacle like another inexplicable court delay, she is “devastated completely.” At those times “I feel like stopping with this work,” Gollo said. “Then I think, ‘No. Who will take care of these people if I quit?’”

Fatuma Kurungu, 39, a female genital mutilation survivor and a teacher at a local school, educates students about human rights and keeps track of their attendance, alert to girls who may be at risk for child marriage or FGM.

Back at the Nomads Trail Hotel, Dansoye Dulla, a local nurse and victim of FGM, draws a diagram of female external genitalia on the board. The women carefully copy their own versions into their notebooks as Dulla explains the function of each part and the audience repeats after her: “urethral orifice,” “labia minora,” “vagina.” When she finishes, Dulla asks if anyone has questions. There is a brief silence until one woman raises her hand and shouts, “It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen!” The room bursts into laughter and applause and the women pack up to go home.

Before she leaves, one woman shyly approaches Gollo to thank her for her presentation. Her daughter is in primary school, she explains, and she was planning to bring the girl to a midwife the next day to have her cut. “I’m canceling the appointment,” the woman tells Gollo, who gives her a nod of approval.

“It’s a good thing she is,” Gollo says quietly as she steps out of the hotel, fanning herself as she meets Marsabit’s oppressive afternoon heat. “Otherwise, I would have made sure she ended up in prison.”

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2017 issue of FP magazine. 

Siobhán O’Grady is a freelance journalist working across sub-Saharan Africa. She previously worked as a staff writer at Foreign Policy. (@siobhan_ogrady)