BEGINNING OF THE END ?
In September 2015, world leaders adopted the Sustainable Development Goals. Goal 5 focusses on Gender Equality. One of its targets is about ending all forms of violence against women and girls in public and private spheres. This is something that is immensely laudable yet hugely challenging to achieve. Achievement of this goal requires a fundamental rethink on the social, cultural, economic and political imperatives that have a deep impact on the status of women and girls. A visit to one of our programmes in Kenya illustrated these complexities.
After a 3-hour long drive from the Kitale airstrip, through the West Pokot region, we reached Kongelai, which is part of ActionAid Kenya’s Local Rights Programme (LRP). It is difficult to spot the houses, spread sparsely across bush forests surrounded by hills. Largely inhabited by pastoralists, the rustic views can create an impression of peace and tranquillity. Yet, it masks one of the most heinous and ancient rituals that have a deep impact on young girls and women. According to one estimate, 200 million across 27 countries in Africa and Asia in the 15-49 age group have been affected.
“I always saw blood around” said Mary, a former ‘cutter’. In keeping with the local culture, Mary was a professional cutter who performed female circumcision soon after a girl enters into adolescence. A painful process conducted with scant attention to safety, it could lead to severe bleeding and even death. But as per the local culture, men would insist on marrying only those girls who had undergone FGM. For the parents, this was important as the man would pay the dowry or bride price. Younger girls who had undergone FGM would be married off to much older and much married men who can afford a higher bride price. “It was difficult. Some girls would die. But I had to perform this. Often, the parents would offer me alcohol to calm me down after the ritual”.
“I did not want to undergo FGM” said 16-year Christine. “But at the age of 13, I was forced by my parents and brother. My family threatened to kill me if I did not comply. And once I went through FGM, I was forced to marry to a much older man who already had four wives. When I resisted and pleaded, I was told that this is normal for girls in our culture. I wanted to continue my education. But I was told that once I had agreed to FGM, it also was a signal that I had agreed to marry”. Christine went to recount her ordeals after marriage. And after a couple of aborted attempts to escape, she succeeded eventually and is now pursuing her education in a centre for rescued girls. She is still not completely comfortable. Her parents and brother have signed an agreement with the local district administrative chief to allow her to study. But she feels that her family resent her because of having resisted the cultural practice.
FGM is not just a cultural rite. It is a symbol of controlling a woman’s sexuality, as Dina, an ActionAid Kenya staff who belongs to the local community, explained. Once circumcised, the vagina was sewn to allow only urine to pass. It was only at the time of her marriage being consummated that the stitches would be opened up. But sometimes, the hole was so small that it would be difficult for a man to penetrate. In such cases, an animal horn would be used to pry open the hole. And after child birth, they would be sewn again. It thus meant that the process of sewing up could be repeated several times in a woman’s life, exposing her to various forms of health risks.
It would also then create more problems at child birth. Maria recounted how she lost her child because the passage was too narrow for the child to be delivered. And after that incident, she was deserted by her husband and she has been childless ever since.
But winds of attitudinal change are blowing, thanks to the courageous work of the local women who have formed a local organisation. Their role is to make local communities aware of the risks associated with this practice and to enable girls and women to resist pressure. They also aim to target young men asking them not to insist that their future brides would have done FGM. As an ex-cutter who has resolved never to go back into her profession, Mary has inspired other cutters to stop this practice and campaign against it. With ActionAid’s support, they are also pursuing other alternative livelihood options.
This also involves them working with many of the local government authorities, traditional chiefs and the police as well. FGM cannot be done forcibly. The law does not permit it. Yet sometimes, the local authorities appear to be providing some implicit support as they are deeply mired in local beliefs, cultural values and practices. This is something that this group is focussing on. The women’s group has also set up helplines using mobile phones so that girls at risk can contact the community leaders.
The journey is long and tortuous as it is a complex mix of various imperatives. But in this unique partnership, ActionAid Kenya has played a huge role in supporting such women’s groups and to ensure that girls have access to continue with their education. Education and improved livelihoods is the answer alongside efforts to constantly change attitude towards women and girls, for which men and boys also have a key role to play. At the base of it, it is about a girl having her fundamental right over her body.