It’s been roughly 100 days since 2017 began. Reflecting on the past year’s campaigns against FGM and early marriages, it is true that all who are involved have come a long way. There have been moments where the campaign may have faltered and made missteps – but we’ve also seen some significant progress.
However, in the course of writing and campaigning, as well as visiting various communities across the country where FGM is practiced, I can attest that activists are increasingly encountering subtle resistance.
A revisionist movement is slowly but surely pushing back, challenging some of reasons advanced in campaigns against FGM as well as approaches that do not seem not to fit with their local context. As such, the conversation at the global and national level is not making much needed impact at the community level.
How is this possible, given the resources that are being channeled…
Kenya is scheduled to hold presidential elections this coming August. In every election cycle, citizens engage in dialogue and negotiations with their respective political aspirants regarding pressing local issues. Based on past election cycles, these issues include infrastructure, healthcare, education, sanitation, food, security and peace – among others.
In democratic societies, communication between leadership and citizens ensures that information vital to the existence, survival and development of constituents is available to them in a timely and balanced manner. Thus, the visible silence regarding harmful cultural practices by the candidates vying for the various positions in Kenya this year is hugely significant.
Given the officialdom associated with legislators such as Members of County Assembly (MCAs), Members of Parliament (MPs) and other elected officials, the campaign period provides a perfect opportunity for members of the public to access prospective power wielders. This is particularly important because, apart from being eventually responsible for…
Often referred to as ‘Mama Nuria’, a name that best describes her motherly nature; Nuria a mother of two daughters, 20 and 10 is best known for fighting, advocating and preserving the rights of girls and women. Her iron fist character has caused arrests and prosecution of many perpetrators of violence against children and women thus earning the name-‘street lawyer’. Her zeal to make the world safer for women has earned her recognition by Fortune Magazine as the Most Powerful Woman in the world! How about her courage to speak when no Borana man would allow? – Well this has for three consecutive years (from 2013-2016) gained her recommendation by Head of State as a SHUJAA (hero) – in Marasbit County. Many fear her. Many love her as well.
A few years ago, while working as a primary school teacher in Marsabit, Nuria was worried by the low number of girls enrolled into schools. Furthermore, the few enrolled girls dropped out of school due to rampant practices of Female Genital Mutilation, (FGM) and Child marriage. Nuria felt that her womenfolk were socially, economically and politically disempowered. She therefore decided to quit her job and start an organization that would basically advocate for the rights of the vulnerable lot.
2010, Marsabit Women Advocacy and Development Organization (MWADO) was born. MWADO has been able to address problems within the community including breaking male dominance characterized by the pastoralists lifestyle. Women from this community (The Borana) are considered as property of men. Men also marry up to four wives. Some men neglect children and discriminate wives from the preceding marriages. Girls suffer the effects more as they are traded of through marriage to older men while as young as 9 years – Here, girls are often given less attention and disregarded for school.
MWADO has been a great platform for redress and a voice for the voiceless. MWADO works closely with the county education department to enroll and retain girls in school and also works very closely with the police to call for arrests on perpetrators of FGM and child marriage. They also escalate cases to courts to ensure offenders are prosecuted accordingly. So far MWADO has successfully nabbed ten perpetrators. Six of whom have faced due prosecution:-Two women; a mother to a cut girl and a cutter, were recently released for performing FGM. They had been jailed for two years. Four other perpetrators are currently serving 2 years jail term.
This move has seen a reduction in cases of FGM and child marriage in Marsabit. Nuria is happy that there is a law in place as opposed to years back when FGM was a legal affair. She is however aware of the new tricks that the community is adapting to which include taking girls for the cut to neighboring towns such as Isiolo and Moyale, taking others to neighboring countries such as Ethiopia and performing the practice under high secrecy. She also blames the area political leaders who interfere with cases by aiding release of offenders before investigation is fully done. She says that most of the cases that she picks up end in this manner!
Asked if the community is aware of the effects of the practice, Nuria confirms that her organization has hitherto, through the Anti-FGM Board carried out training of chiefs, nyumba kumi officials and paralegals. She has also led many community dialogues especially with village elders who make most of the decisions for the community. Additionally, they carry out quarterly local radio programs that reach a big geographical area in Marsabit. She is certain that the community is aware of the harmful aspect of FGM and that arrests have been an ultimate solution to deter and manage the practice.
She too, has organized for Court Users Committee (CUC) training of police, magistrates and judges on how to handle cases of Sexual,Gender Based Violence especially preserving evidence that would be used to prosecute perpetrators.
Her elder daughter has also been quite an icing on the cake! She is currently in university pursuing a degree in Law. When schools close she accompanies her mother to workshops, forums and events where she speaks on the importance of educating girls. She is also a role model to many school going girls; she moves from schools to schools encouraging girls to pursue their dreams.
Nuria is currently viewing for a position of Member of Parliament under Frontier Alliance Party, a patrolists party. She hopes that in the coming elections, August 2017, if she is elected to represent women in parliament. She will best champion her dreams.
For FGM to somehow end among the Borana community, the most powerful leader ‘Aba Gada’ who heads the Gumi Gayo assembly based in Ethiopia has to make a ruling against it. Nuria perfectly understands such political and cultural barriers that impede the fight to end FGM, but she still forges on!
In each election cycle, citizens are constantly communicating either through negotiations or engaging in dialogue with their respective political aspirants seeking office regarding pressing local issues. This communication process can be either vertical communication where information moves from the bottom going up (feed forward) or top going down (feedback). It could also mean horizontal communication where the information moves on either side in a straight line. In this regard, the process of information feed forward and feedback makes it easy for those aspiring for political office to understand the felt needs of the citizens which are diverse.
Based on past election cycles, most of these needs tend to range from improved infrastructure, available healthcare, affordable education, improved sanitation, food, security and peace among many others.
It is therefore not surprising that, though communication plays an important role in the election cycle, it is not all issues that eventually become part of the communication process or make it to the table to be negotiated upon. For instance, even with the ongoing 2017 political parties primary nominations in Kenya, as a blogger I am yet to stumble upon a campaign manifesto specifying the need to end cultural practices that affect the wellness and productivity of a community. I am also yet to hear of an aspirant publicly declaring that they will work with the community to end cultural practices that deem retrogressive to his/her people.
In democratic societies, communication between the leadership and citizens plays an essential role of ensuring that information vital to the existence, survival and development of constituents of such societies is availed to them in a timely, equitable, fair and balanced manner. Thus the visible silence regarding harmful cultural practices by the major candidates vying for party primary nominations can only be interpreted as poor utilization of communication channels by both aspirants and citizens to articulate the need to end harmful practices.
As a communication practitioner, I would have expected information feed forward by fellow anti-FGM activists during this political primary nomination season; principally to reach out to prospective candidates and have a genuine discussion about the need to include eradication of FGM as part of their agenda as well as get their commitment for implementation when they get into office.
Given the officialdom associated with accessing legislators such as Member of County assemblies (MCAs), Members of Parliament and other elected officials, the party primary nominations season provides a perfect opportunity for accessing prospective power wielders. This is particularly important because apart from being eventually responsible for representing their people both at the county and national assembly, legislators are responsible for making and amending laws. Therefore an encounter at the primary nominations can help create a rapport that will be useful during respective terms in office
Alongside the abovementioned, communication also offers an avenue for both vertical and horizontal communication. In this regard, anti-FGM activists have an opportunity to influence political aspirants to channel grassroots issues such as FGM and early marriage to their corresponding parties and leadership. In effect, this has the potential to not only make anti-FGM negotiations as part of the party manifesto but also raises the possibility of becoming official policy should the particular party and its leaders ascend to high office. In this case, anti-FGM activists can piggy back on political aspirants at the grassroots to reach their respective political parties as well as their party leaders as a means of escalating the message to discourage the practice of FGM to a wider audience.
More specifically, women political aspirants, by virtue of vying for special political seat of “Woman representative” have a more powerful platform to mainstream ‘women issues’ such as FGM within their various agendas considering that men would rather not talk about. In this regard, I consider women representative seat aspirants easy targets because irrespective of party affiliation are by virtue of their position expected to speak on and champion women causes without fear of losing votes.
In retrospect, I also fault the donor community who despite being conscious that 2017 was an election year did not or have not considered the importance of investing in activities aimed at bringing together anti-FGM actors and aspirants in areas where harmful traditional practices still occur. While it is understandable that Donors may prefer to remain apolitical, when it comes to battling FGM they may need to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty! In this respect, understanding that FGM is a cross cutting issue that requires massive political capital, hence donors ought to have facilitated conversations between and among activists and aspirants during this election cycle.
Finally and on a disappointing note, it is most likely that even in this election cycle most politicians will avoid talking about FGM among other harmful traditional practices. This, according to me is a cowardly and selfish act of seeking for office. It beats logic how our leaders elected on the promise of hope of alleviating poverty and misery- educated and well traveled-can ignore and even encourage a practice that continuously enslaves the same electorate to live impoverished lives.
Seventy odd days have passed since the year 2017 began and reflecting on the past years campaigns against FGM and early marriages, it is true that all who are involved have walked a long distance. There have been moments where the campaign may have faltered and made missteps but also some significant progress has been registered. In the course of writing and campaigning as well as visiting various communities across the country where FGM is practiced, I can attest that activists are increasingly encountering subtle resistance.
A revisionist movement is slowly but surely pushing the envelope, challenging some of the long held reasons advanced in campaigns against FGM as well as approaches that seem not to fit with their local context. As such the conversation at the national level is not yielding much needed results at the community level.
How is this possible, given the resources that are being channeled and renewed vigor among activists? Just to illustrate this, sometime in 2016 during an event dubbed the Maasai 7s event in Kajiado, a group of elite young men from universities; The Maasai Students Association, revealed to me that they still encourage and uphold the practice of FGM citing that their work involves moving around schools encouraging girls to continue with school after the practice. Many activists would contend that this is a big fat lie because the fact on the ground is that FGM among the Maasai prepares a woman mentally for marriage and there is very little chance that the girl will pursue education after the cut!
Another illustration relates to a separate visit, to Garissa where the FGM prevalence stands at 97%. Here the recurring challenge arising relates to the notion that somehow FGM affects child births. During community conversations, I have heard many women dispute the health effects of the practice citing that they have actually been able to give birth to many children despite the cut! One woman from Garissa told me that she underwent type 3 form of FGM (infubilation) and she prides in the birth of her 10 children. According to Kenneth Odary of Research Triangle Africa (RTA), such uninformed sentiments coupled with official statistics that reveal that there is indeed a higher birth rate and population growth diminish the credibility of some long held facts on the dangers of FGM.
Another recent illustration coming barely a week is, while in Narok during a youth forum where a young man from the group stood up and insisted that his two daughters will go through FGM and that until someone gives him better reasons why he should not, he was not going to defy his culture to impress anyone. Baffling as he sounded, he represents a majority out here!
These are but few examples of the subtle resistance and revisionist statements that activists have to contend with while in the field. Such is the dilemma, which in many private conversations has been suggestions for a holistic approach which not only tackles the known health and social-cultural issues but also frames them within the broader social economic and political context.
For instance, recently there was a voter registration exercise that took place in Kenya and various political factions were competing to register voters. Unknown to some of these groups is that only a third of women who currently comprise over half the population of Kenya are registered to vote! This is largely as a result of many women lacking the crucial national identity card as result of being forced into early marriages common with girls who have undergone FGM but also dropped out of school.
According to Kenneth Odary, this implies that in Kenya’s tribal driven politics, communities practicing FGM are deprived of the critical numbers needed to bargain for power and resources at the National level. Besides, given their low level of education attainment, such women may be unable to countenance the importance of voting as their democratic right enshrined in our constitution even upon attaining the age of maturity. As such the political class ought to be targeted as part of anti-FGM campaigns and sold a different narrative which serves both their personal ambitions and community interests!
Politics aside, women’s pursuit of their socio-economic rights is largely hampered as a result of harmful cultural practices of FGM and early marriages. For instance, In Kenya, without a national identity card, a woman can be deprived of the opportunity to access affirmative action funds made available by government such as the youth fund, women’s fund and Uwezo fund.
This against a backdrop where research has continuously shown that women in Kenya have demonstrated greater fiducial responsibility with regards to micro-finance loans. In the same token, in a world where digital presence has become the norm, a woman without her national ID cannot register for a simple mobile phone sim card! Which in the current setting is more than just a communication tool.
In this regard, activists ought to generate data that appeals to micro-finance institutions, banks and mobile money companies and therefore walk hand in hand in anti FGM campaigns.
In addition, access to health while it remains a right is also compromised if one cannot access the National Health Insurance Fund as a result of lacking a national identity card. Besides, without an ID, women are less likely to own property especially during succession matters. Lack of an ID also inhibits their ability to engage in business not forgetting movement within and out of Kenya! As such many women as a result of underage marriages occasioned by FGM remain marginalized and trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty or what Eva Komba, a Gender and Development Specialist, describes as feminization of poverty. Thereby a woman who is poor is unlikely to better the life of her own children. Thus activists must purpose to fate their strategies and approaches along gender and sustainable development processes locally, nationally and globally.
These examples here are but a fraction of the numerous doses of reality that relate to the women at the community level that can be generated to re-energize the anti FGM crusade and make it more holistic. Thus funding for activities need to strategically shift from arguments about why FGM is wrong published in little fact sheets distributed during conferences to the broader socio economic and political impact of this practice.
Linkages should be made between the anti-FGM campaigns and development strategies such as Kenya’s vision 2030, Planet 50/50, Agenda 2063 and the sustainable development goals (SDG). According to Kenneth Odary, linking FGM to national, regional and global priorities that men care about may be what is needed to overcome some of the harmful cultural practices.
While on his tour in Kenya, UN General Secretary, Antonio Guterres, reminded the world, during International Women’s Day and simultaneous launch of the AU campaign to end child/forced marriage that no country will achieve its full development agenda without full integration of women and girls!
Kenya joins 18 other Africa Union (AU) member states in commiting to end child marriages by officially launching a National Action Plan meant to accelerate efforts that prohit marriages below the age of eighteen.
Other countries that have already launched this aggressive and symbolic campaign include Ethiopia, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad, DRC, Madagascar, Zimbabwe, Mali, Uganda, Tanzania, Ghana, Malawi, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Liberia, Cameroon, Eritrea and The Gambia.
Dignitaries from Kenya and Africa, civil societies, women, men, girls and boys from all corners of the country congregated at the Kenyatta International Conference Centre (KICC) Nairobi to take part in the big milestone as they marked the International Women’s Day- With the theme; #BeBoldForChange
First Lady of Kenya Her Excellency Margaret Kenyatta led the Nation in the unveiling of the campaign. In her speech Margaret said ‘ My administration will show zero tolerance to violence and discrimination against women and girls’, Said Margaret. ‘Let us join hands to make Kenya a freer and safer country for not only for our women and girls but for all citizens’ She added.
Her Excellency also unveiled a parallel campaign by the Government of Kenya and the United Nations Program to End Gender Based Violence (GBV). She further unveiled a campaign, Jitokeze 1195; meaning ‘speak out’ a call to action for all Kenyans to speak out and work towards prevention of GBV. (1195 is a toll free number that Kenyans can call in response to a GBV incident)
Mustapha Kaloko, Social Affairs Africa Union Commission stated that approximately 14M girls are married every year before they reach 18 years,One in three girls in the developing world is married by the age of eighteen and one in nine by the age of 15, some as young as eight and nine. He assured the continent that he will mobilise continental effort to end this current scenario. He emphasized on the need for education as 60% of child brides in developing countries have no formal education.
The UN secretary General Antonio Guterres who was on an official visit in the country graced the celebration. He congratulated Kenya and Africa for concert efforts to combat child marriage, a culture that impedes gender equality. He began by pointing out that everywhere in the world there is male dominance and that to attain gender equality such barriers need to be broken! He said that he envisions a society where competent men and women acess equal opportunities.
‘ Prosperity of a country depend on full integration of women and girls’. He said. Gender equality is important to any society that considers itself developed!,’ Added Mr.Guterres
He summarized by reinforcing that in order to achieve AU Agenda 2063, the continent needs to commit to gender equality.
Sicily Kariuki, Minister in Charge of Gender and Youth affairs acknowledged everyones’ commitment noting that FGM and GBV continue to be stumbling blocks towards the noble ideal of advancing and attaining gender equality. She spelled out that her docket is committed to ensuring that Female Genital Mutilation and child marriages come to an end.
In Kenya, despite the strong legal framework which puts the minimum age of marriage at 18 for both girls and boys, the practice of early marriage persists. Girls are disproportionately affected and prevalence is highest in most deprived parts of the country.
The Kenya Demographic Health survey 2014 shows that prevalence is highest in Northern Kenya (56%), followed by coast (41%) Nyanza (32%), Rift Valley (30%), Western (27%), Eastern (18%), Central (17%) and Nairobi (7%)
Both FGM and child marriage require addressing the underlying social norms that accord little value to girls by engaging with communities to change attitudes and mindsets.
Most importantly, Ending Child Marriage requires action at all levels and across sectors!
Kenya is finally ready to launch the Africa Union campaign on ending child marriage! This aggressive campaign meant to eliminate child marriages in Africa has already been launched in 15 countries including Ethiopia, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad, DRC, Madagascar, Zimbabwe, Mali, Uganda, Tanzania, Ghana, Malawi and recently Liberia with plans to launch in 6 more member states. It is to be noted that the launch of the campaign in these countries was spearheaded by heads of states and first ladies. It is now Kenya’s turn.
I am advantaged to be among the civil society team that collectively worked on the draft document: (National Action Plan on ending child marriages in Kenya). The final draft approved by the State Department, Ministry of Public Service, Youth and Gender Affairs, will be unveiled by Her Excellency The First Lady of Kenya, Margaret Kenyatta, on 8th March. The document is meant to act as a roadmap to the relevant stakeholder charged with ensuring that child/forced marriages are put to an end.
In Kenya, despite the strong legal framework which puts the minimum age of marriage at 18 for both boys and girls, the practice of early marriage persists. Girls are disproportionately affected and the prevalence is highest in the most deprived parts of the country. The Kenya Demographic Health Survey 2014-15 shows that prevalence is highest in Northern Kenya (56%), followed by coast (41%), Nyanza (32%), Rift Valley (30%), Western (27%), Eastern (18%) Central (17%) and Nairobi (7%)
The likelihood of being married as children stems largely from lack of education, poverty and persistent practice of harmful cultural practices such as Female Genital Mutilation. The majority of these marriages are spearheaded by elders and formalized usually through customary procedures such as the payment of a bride price to the girls’ family.
This worsens in times of emergencies when girls are seen as an easy means of restocking family livestock that perished during drought through marrying girls off irrespective of their biological and childhood age. Girls are either seen as an economic burden or valued as capital for their exchange value in terms of goods, money and livestock.
The reality of Child/Forced Marriage
This news came in the wake of my recent visit to Magadi:Few weeks ago, while at Musenke primary school, I got a chance to interact and mentor about three hundred girls who were undergoing an Alternative Rites of Passage commonly known as ARPs, a program by AMREF Health Africa. My visit to Musenke brought me nigh to the reality of child/forced marriage.
Amina*, 14 years old narrowly escaped forced marriage to a 45 year old man. Amina was only 12 years old. Her close friend, Naserian*, 15 years escaped jaws of Female Genital Cutting and subsequent marriage at the age of 9.
Amina’s charming smile caught my attention. I instantly fell in love with her confidence coupled with her intelligence. On interacting with her, her smile proved to conceal distress that she underwent two years ago. With consent from AMREF Health Africa and Amina’s main guardian, I got a chance to interview her.
2013, Amina sat for her primary school final exams and emerged best girl from her class and district as well. She desired to join a secondary school to pursue her dream of becoming a Television Anchor. Her dreams were almost shuttered when her impoverished father secretly arranged her marriage to a man four times her age.
She got a wind of the planned marriage through her brother who eavesdropped to a conversation between his father and a neighbor. Amina was to be traded in the following day for a few cows that were to be sold to raise money for his elder brother’s school fee. (Amina’s mother passed on three years ago).
That night, Amina was unable to sleep. It was about midnight, she had few hours remaining to become a child bride, a wife with new responsibilities that she could not imagine herself performing! She instantaneously planned her escape.
She tiptoed across the room, careful not to wake up any soul. Cautiously, she opened the door, closed it silently and took off at a ‘leopard’s speed’. She waved through thorny bushes oblivious of the danger she was putting herself through (here, wild animals are known to hunt for goats at this hour), the orchestra of the chirping insects giving her rhythm to sprint even faster. The breezy full moon night supplying her with just enough light to easily locate her elder half-sister’ house, which was about 5 Km away.
In roughly 20 minutes she arrived, flinging her door wide open. She landed on the floor with a huge thud panting, sweating and slightly bleeding from parts that had been pricked by thorns. Her sister woke up with a loud piercing scream. Amina quickly identified herself. Through gasps, she narrated her tribulation.
Her loving sister was very concerned. She happened to be an elementary school teacher at the same school that Amina went to. The following morning, she reported the matter to the schools’ management and what followed was a series of demonstrations and marches by her schoolmates and teachers. They marched to various offices including the Area Chief, Police Station, District Education Office, and Provincial Administration demanding for immediate action to be taken to spare Amina from the imminent arranged marriage.
Amina’s father was quite belligerent citing that his decision was final. He located her, went for her, dragged her and locked her in the house. He threatened that he would harm her and curse her if she attempted to escape again.
Activities in Musenke village came to a stand-still for three consecutive days. During the day, women could be seen gathering in small groups and talking in low tones. Men left the village in pretense of search for pasture for their livestock. School children tirelessly sang and chanted ‘No Marriage for Amina!, No marriage for Amina!’ At this time, Amina was drafting her suicide note.
Just before Amina could take away her life, the police stormed her house and rescued her. His unmoved father was arrested and remanded for a few days. Amina was now running late to join secondary school. Luckily she was awarded a full bursary though a community development fund program. She was enrolled to Kiserian Girls High School. She is currently in form two pursuing her dream.
Amina has never stepped back home except when the Nation Television crew and I was conducting the interview. When schools close, she stays at her sisters’ place.
She graduated from the ARP program, a training program that helped her transition to adulthood without undergoing FGM. Amina is so far safe from FGM and Child Marriage.
Her friend Naserian ran away from home and sought refuge at a rescue centre in Narok, miles away from Musenke. Her parents are yet to find her.
Amina and Naserian represent a fraction of thousands of girls in Kenya who are at high risk of undergoing FGM and early/forced marriage; cultures that are robbing them off their dreams.
Abandonment of child marriages and FGM is pertinent to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals. Goals on education, Health, ending poverty and hunger as well as achieving gender equality and empowering women and girls.
As we celebrate International Women’s Day on 8th March, let’s remember that girls like Amina and Naserian are counting on us to protect them. Let us join hands in protecting our girls, Just like Aminas case where the community and relevant sectors joined hands to safeguard her future.Let us all #BeBoldForChange