At least 300 girls in south-western Kenya have fled from home and sought refuge in churches in a bid to escape forced female genital mutilation (FGM).
The girls, some as young as nine, are at two rescue centres in rural Nyanza province, police told the BBC.
Female circumcision is banned in Kenya, but remains common in some areas where it is considered to be part of a girl’s initiation into womanhood.
The traditional ceremonies take place between November and December.
The girls in Kuria District are now in the care of the two churches and Maendeleo Ya Wanawake, a women’s organisation.
Police are providing security at the centres to ensure that the girls are not forcibly removed or harassed.
Beatrice Robi, Maendeleo Ya Wanawake’s district chairperson and a gender activist, says that at least 200 girls are undergoing circumcision in the district a day.
She said she had found a seven-year-old girl who had just been circumcised.
“There are more girls who are still in their homes and they are undergoing it [circumcision], whether it is voluntarily or they are being forced,” she told the BBC.
She says her organisation along with the local churches and authorities have been trying to convince the community to stop the practice and rescuing girls from forced circumcision.
Paul Wanjama, the commanding officer in Kuria District, says girls in the region usually flee to the rescue centres until the season ends.
He said that in some cases, parents encourage the girls to go to the rescue centres to avoid being circumcised.
“There are some parents who are against that [FGM practice] but they get pressure from these traditional people,” he told the BBC.
Girls who undergo circumcision feel that they are ready for marriage and do not go back to school when the term begins in January leading to a high drop-out rate, Mrs Robi said.
She appealed to other girls to seek refuge in the centres until the end of the traditional ceremonies and praised the local police for their support.
Mr Wanjama says some cases of forced circumcision had been reported to the police and legal action has been taken.
The FGM operation involves the partial or total removal of the external genital organs.
The UN World Health Organization (WHO) says it leads to bleeding, shock, infections and a higher rate of death for new-born babies.
In Africa, about three million girls are at risk of FGM each year, according to the UN.
Source: BBC News 5 December 2008