• Elder-led community dialogues campaign against FGM, subsequent early marriage
• Men who usually do not see the cutting and the pain the girls go through are exposed to the experience
Roughly 15 men are packed at a community hall in Chepareria, West Pokot county. They sit in rows and politely crane their necks to face whoever is talking.
Outside, the sun is slowly heating up, but in here, it is dark as a video clip is aired to capture the various types of Female Genital Mutilation.
Debate quickly erupts, and others shout before another voice cuts through the noise, “When a girl is born in a family, the father becomes happy because he is sure of getting wealth, the bridewealth. When she reaches 14 years old, she undergoes the cut, ready for marriage.”
He continues, “FGM has really affected our girls and women. Men continue enjoying yet women are suffering day and night, especially while giving birth. It has increased cases of fistula and you know doing the repair is really costly. It has also caused stigma to our girls and women.”
The man leading the group discussion, Joseph Lopetakori, 58, is challenging generations of ingrained beliefs about FGM.
He is the organising secretary to the Council of Elders, West Pokot county, and one of the “peer mentors” selected by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) to lead regular training sessions that encourage men to rethink their positions on FGM.
Orchestrated by World Vision, the community dialogues aim to educate fathers about the physical, emotional and financial damage that FGM, early marriage and childrearing can cause.
“Both FGM and marriage deny girls their rights and their childhood and deprive them of any chance of a bright future," he says.
"It often means the end of a girl’s formal schooling and puts her at risk of health dangers associated with early pregnancy, physical and sexual violence, and an increased likelihood of poverty.”
Started in 2017, the community dialogue forums have helped to provide a favourable opportunity to discuss the provisions of the Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act (2011) in a simplified form. Popular versions are refined for the understanding of the user in their dialect, particularly parts IV on offences and part V on the penalty for offences.
The community dialogue sessions also address issues such as the risks and consequences associated with FGM. Informational materials are disseminated, with key messages on anti-FGM for further sensitisation and awareness-raising.
Lopetakori says the elders are now leading the onslaught against the retrogressive practice and have embarked on a number of initiatives to beat the 2022 deadline set by President Uhuru Kenyatta.
“We are forming committees at sub-locational level. The committees will have representation from the council of elders, assistant chiefs, church leaders and Nyumba Kumi initiative,” he says.
The elders are currently using chief barazas and arbitration meetings to educate other men on the damage that FGM does to girls and young women, in the hope of convincing fathers to stop the retrogressive practice.
“My urge to the Pokot community is that: let them not harm their daughters. If they really love them, they should protect and educate them and then leave them the way God created them,” Lopetakori says.
John Wafula, a humanitarian programme specialist with the UNFPA, says elders are now spearheading a number of initiatives at the grassroots level, including making declarations to renounce FGM.
George Ndung’u, a representative from the World Vision, reiterated the critical role elders play in propagating issues of FGM and child marriage.
“The elderly men are the ones who marry these young girls because they own resources. For them, it is prestige to have a young woman and an extra wife. Once girls get cut, they automatically get married. To address this tradition, men, male youth and boys must be involved,” he said.
“Some of these men do not even participate when the ceremonies are taking place. Although young men participate, they do not see the actual cutting and the pain the girls go through. One of the strategies we have been using is to show them some video clips and images on the various types of FGM.”
The strategy is used to change their mentality and perspective about FGM and has helped in creating male champions, who are spearheading efforts to protect the rights of the girls and their education.
Within the Pokot tribe, female circumcision is seen as a girl’s transition to womanhood. Although it’s now illegal in Kenya, the tribe still allows it and, in fact, forces all girls to do it before marriage.
The practice is also known as FGM and, in many countries, is considered a human rights violation. It can lead to severe bleeding, infections, infertility and death. Some 125 million girls and women in 29 countries in Africa and the Middle East have experienced it, according to the United Nations.
FGM prevalence in the country is at 21 per cent. However, the prevalence is still high in the counties where communities practice FGM. A recent research by Unicef shows that FGM prevalence in West Pokot is at 74 per cent.
However, the UNFPA official believes if locals combine efforts in the fight against FGM, especially the elders, then a lot of people will shun the practice. He believes in a holistic and strategic approach to eliminating the practice by 2022.
Edited by T Jalio