In this post I want to explain how activist Helen Rotich has addressed the male and youth angles of eradicating FGC. One of the most interesting misconceptions about the grip that FGC has on the Maasai is that it is driven by males, where as in fact the practice is perpetuated just as much and more so by women. Still, incorporating men is an important step in any community engagement effort to decrease circumcision and early marriage, since men have a monopoly on the important positions and government offices in the community.
At the same time as she was working with traditional circumcisers, Helen also formed group called Men Initiative, to which she invited leaders in the community including village elders, medical personel, public health officers, chiefs, head teachers, government officers – the people she believed parents would listen to. She also invited some “dynamic youths” she felt would be able to help sensitize the other youths. So, as a volunteer, she called them together for a seminar, providing them tea and the like to get them involved.
To these men, Helen explained the dangers of various forms of violence against women, “of course not calling it really those names, because then they would see it like “we want to fight men,” so just saying things like “our daughters are going things that others are not going through, and maybe it is outdated.”” She called on these men to use every forum they could, such as when chiefs call barazas (a meeting during which chiefs call the community together to distribute information), to disseminate their message. Helen explains that it helps to have the men on board “because as a woman, if you stand, people might not take it so seriously. Because people just say, “women, they talk like that. Women, you know?” And they will not see a sense”
The youth, and the “Sisters’ keepers:”
While reaching out to circumcisers is sort of “cool” – it feels somehow like one must really be getting to the illicit side of the activity – it does nothing to stop the demand for their services, and this is why she is also targeting mothers and youth, the groups who actually generate demand for FGC.
She used the same women she had extracted from the menacing world of cutting for cash to act as trainers and facilitators when she held seminars for young girls. Every holiday when schools close, she brings together girls of different ages, preparing them with information appropriate for their age. At the end of primary school, she hosts a rite of passage ceremony for them, and a full weeklong training. They train these youths in different capacity building techniques empower them to be able “to pressurize their villages to understand “hey we don’t need any more of circumcision for girls.”
But educating girls brought up another challenge: educated girls who are rejecting FGM will still “need to be married” to boys from around the community. So, sensing the need to train boys as well, she started programs on gender equality with the male youth. In this forum, she trained them on gender-based violence, including FGM and rape, and then she promoted open debate on topics like “would you like to have a circumcised girl or uncircumcised?” Says Helen; “when they come to know the difference between a circumcised girl and uncircumcised, and what they can even enjoy in their relationship when they are married, they start of course also not wanting a circumcised girl.”
“Through those kind of debates then they get to learn more, and getting more facts about FGM, the impacts, the consequences, and how that has brought us down in our community that the girls are not competitive enough with other women from other areas, then they start now being the sister’s keeper.” Saying this, Helen lights up with a mischevious and clever smile. “So the girls don’t have to run away from home because the brother is there to say “no what do you want her to do that?” So it became a kind of a teamwork in fighting FGM.”
Unfortunately, Helen hasn’t gotten any formal evaluation of the effectiveness of her program, mainly for lack of funding. Anecdotally, it sounds like it has been extremely effective, and at the very least it is an innovative approach coming from a woman from within the community. Impressed as I am, however, I am a big proponent of results-based interventions. Still, Helen is a woman who faced major obstacles but who knew what she needed to do to combat FGM because of her experience with a twice cut pubic area and a cruelly oppressive society.
Posted By Charlotte Bourdillon
Posted Sep 3rd, 2011