Sometimes we lie; to protect our daughters from the cut….

Women of Bakal Self Help Group

Somewhere in Laisamis, Sagartula village, a village sandwiched between Marsabit hills on the east and Lake Turkana on the west;   occupy the Rendille people, Rongumo Sub clan. Here you will find a group of about 15 women primarily functioning as a self-help group but with a noble intend to end Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and Child marriage among young girls including their daughters.

After a 10hr drive from Kenya’s capital Nairobi and a further 1hr motor cycle ride from the local Laisamis town, I arrived at Kaltuma’s house just before the sun sank in the west. During my sandy ride, I was sporadically hit by waves of awful stenches caused by decaying carcasses of cattle and goats that scattered across the arid land; a manifestation of the harsh drought that adversely affects the region.

Ms. Kaltuma- Chairperson Bakal Self Help Group happily invited me into her home and served me camel milk tea. Her warm jovial family made me feel at home. We chatted away almost the entire evening. It was quite humid that I was unable to sleep. I tossed and turned for hours. The orchestra of the chattering insects outside almost soothed me to sleep. Her daughter, Saum, occasionally asked if I was fine; ‘aunty, are you Ok?’ She inquired, ‘Sure Saum,’ I lied. I kept peeping through the openings of the twig hut to enjoy  a stupendous array of bright stars that dominated the sky. Just when I was at the ‘peak’ of my hard found sleep, noises outside distracted me; the early morning birds chirped different tunes, the cows mooed at intervals, the cock crowed repeatedly while the goats bleated in turns. I could also overhear Ronte and Saum giggling outside and Ms. Kaltuma yelling their names on top of her lungs; Ronteeee! Saum!!. Clearly, every creature was up. So up, I woke! And stepped out of the hut with a haggard look in my eyes.

It was a bright breezy Saturday morning. Orange -pink sun rays  beatified the sky on the east. I was excited and fervent to meet these wonderful women of Bakal Self Help Group. During breakfast, the girls were curious about my work. I tried much to explain. Saum was more inquisitive and expressed her dream of becoming a journalist when she grows up. I encouraged her to work hard in school and read a lot of story books. After breakfast, they directed a video of ‘I reporting live on location’. Saum firmly held my I pad ‘Ok Aunty Lorna, 123 start!’ I rattled on…(these girls can be something!)

Saum and I


At about 10am, the women started streaming into Ms. Kaltumas homestead, one after the other, others in pairs chatting and occasionally stopping for a minute or so to gossip – then high five in cracking laughter.   Saum, Ronte and I were done with ‘reporting live’. We carried benches and arranged them under a tree- at 10am the equitorial sun was already shining with a strange cruelty. Soon all the women had arrived, the total sum lacking one woman, probably caught up by other pressing matters. Oh, she notified Ms. Kaltuma of her absence through one of the women present.

The meeting started. Ronte and Saum had been requested by their mother to give a hand with livestock. I took up my space, dressed in disguise, smiling a bit too abnormal-probably trying to create rapport. Ms. Kaltuma did the best. She introduced me to the ladies and introduced the ladies to me. She informed them of my presence. Most women here speak local dialect, ‘this is going to be hard’ I thought to myself. Not to worry, Ms. Kaltuma volunteered to translate. She told the women that the agenda of the meeting was going to change a bit since I was around. And that they would carry on with their meeting a bit later.

She led them through who I was once again (in details) and what had brought me there. She asked them to be honest and to feel free in expressing their views and opinions. The discussion began….

What was obvious is that these women are really bold and some including Ms. Kaltuma have been divorced by their husbands for being audacious- pastoralists’ wives are expected to be very humble and obedient to their husbands. Others have been ostracized by fellow women. This group is vigilantly protecting girls including their own daughters from FGM, bidding (booking underage girls for marriage) and child marriage cultures that are quite rampant in Laisamis. Circumcision here is performed as a highly valued culture and as rite of passage. A girl who is not cut is considered dirty and is a laughing stock to her peers.

These women are working to change the perception. They regularly approach other women and encourage them to preserve their daughters. I loudly wondered how possible that was….

When they started they were a group of about three women. The three women have slowly been reaching out to other women and gradually over one year the number has been growing. Some members drop out especially for fear of being shunned majorly because the group is against the deeply entrenched practices.

The women started by saving their own daughters before reaching out to the rest. They have chosen to use the funds they save to support each other educate their children-both girls and boys. So far, they are celebrating their achievement where one of their members’ daughter is set to sit for final exams this year.

‘How do the girls manage to deal with peer pressure? Do some of them choose to undergo the cut just to fit in?, I probed. They reveal to me something quite perturbing.

‘Sometimes when pressure is a lot, we lie about the cut’, Said one woman. The type of FGM performed here is excision-where the vaginal lips and the clitoris are scooped out. Under high secrecy, they revealed to me that they convince cutters to slightly cut a girls’ thigh using a sharp object-just for blood to drip.  The girl sharply screams – that’s enough indication that she has gone through the ritual.  A pact is made between the women and the girl- The girl is asked to remain silent and continue with her studies. The cutter is however paid triple the amount for risking her life by agreeing to tricks.

‘What if one day you are discovered?’ I shockingly asked, my eyes growing wider. ‘We will deal with that when that time comes’ they said. ‘For now what we want is safety for our girls’ expressed another woman. These women value education. They know that the educated children will be their instrument for change in Sagartula.

The women highlighted that awareness levels are quite low and that the community is quite reluctant to stop the practice. They however said that they have heard of an organization working to end the practice in the area though they have not been reached. They also pointed out that cutters make a good income out of the ‘business’ ( KES 1500, 5Kgs Sugar, A goat, 500gms Tea Leaves per girl) and that they are not just about to stop. In fact cutters are rich! Some of the women were sad that their elder daughters who have undergone the cut have dropped out of school and are married off leading impoverished lives.

Laisamis is arid. Rains come in the month of December through to January. During this time there is plenty of milk and blood since livestock have enough pasture to graze. This is considered the best time for FGM and child marriage. Child marriage is done to replace the livestock lost during drought through dowry- exchange of livestock for a girl.

They pointed out that their men especially elders are the most difficult to convince and if they were targeted, the practice would end. The women concluded by stating that their vision is big. But they will save one girl at a time…



North-South Cooperation in Fighting FGM

Girls' Globe

In recent years, it has become apparent that international cooperation is important in promoting inclusive and sustainable development, especially to achieve global development agendas. African countries recognize the importance of partnerships for enhancing and consolidating the growth of the continent.

Many African states have benefitted from the traditional North-South cooperation, through sharing experiences, technical assistance, as well as the cooperation of other  emerging economies. It is along such lines that the Anti-FGM campaign has picked up much-necessary momentum after years of lip service.

The campaign against FGM has had a long history, but it has been confined to board rooms and workshops, with few targeted grassroots campaigns. For instance, as recently as 2010, Kenya did not have an official policy addressing FGM and relied upon Presidential decrees. However, with the Anti-FGM policy put in place, in 2011, there has been considerable investment of resources and strategies from the North.

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The FGM Conversation has to Change

Girls' Globe

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…

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Politics in the face of FGM: Kenya Edition

Girls' Globe

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…

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Mama Nuria Golo,Marsabit’s ‘Street Lawyer’- Her struggle to End FGM

Nuria Golo
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!





Politics, in the face of FGM/C & Early Marriage

Nairobi business woman, Esther Passaris at Kibera Rally on Sunday, April 2,2017. Esther is contesting for Women Representative seat for Nairobi County

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.


The conversation around the practice of FGM has to change!

26 year old woman from Musenke, Magadi ( Photo from my media Library)

Why am I saying this?

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!