Charlotte Bourdillon

Charlotte Bourdillon (Kakenya Center for Excellence – KCE): In the summer of 2009, Charlotte worked with an indigenous women's weaving group in Temuco, Chile. She received her B.A. in Community Health and International Relations from Tufts University in 2010. Prior to her AP fellowship, Charlotte also worked with a health and community-led development initiative in Haiti, called RESPE:Ayiti. Charlotte also interned at Physicians for Human Rights in Cambridge, MA. After her fellowship Charlotte wrote: “I can look at so many deliverables that I am proud of; things I am especially happy to have been able to achieve in the low-resource area I was working in."

From circumcision to construction: economic incentives for dropping the knife

02 Sep

Helen made some very interesting decisions in how to incorporate the traditional female circumcisers in the Anti-Feminine Genital Mutilation program she started in coordination with the Women’s Federation for World Peace and the Maendeleo Ya Wanawake Organization. This post is an elaboration on the program I mentioned in my last post. Please forgive the length, but I think the details of how she is tackling the issue are worth exploring, and hope you find them to be interesting also.

Hellen Rotich leading a leadership and teamwork activity

Traditional Surgeons:

The first step of her program was to reach out to the “traditional surgeons”: women who do circumcisions like a commercial kind of job, traditionally called te-mosianisek or temosianiti. She is very frank about the fact that only about half of those to whom she has reached out have really “bitten” on her bate, and become involved in her program in a long term way. But those who have, have not only involved themselves but have continued to rally their peers.

Of course these women were resistant at first, “hiding because they thought it was the government who would want to take them by law and charge them or maybe jail them and fine them.” Helen’s team got around this resistance by first inviting other women also, such as traditional birth attendants, to the trainings, under the guise of a more generic women’s seminar. She would incentivize attendees by providing fare for transport, and she built interest by having the first attendees serve as “ambassadors” to go back and tell others how much they learned. Here she recounts how she approached the issue first through the health hazards facing the practitioners themselves:

“I told them what they have been doing was very important for our culture. Then we went through the many cultures that the Kipsigis have, then I was asking them which ones are still very good, and which ones are bad, and why do they think they’re bad, and so I took them around that. And then finally I approached it through HIV because at that time the HIV prevalence was very high it was at 14% that was around 2001-2003 there. And so I said you know we are fighting things, and I said you know the girls and even you, the people who are touching those parts of the women that gets these disease, you need to know. So I approach it through HIV and I show them some videos which shows some various affected areas…. immediately they saw the video they said they’re no longer going to touch any girl, so the dropped the activity.”

The economics of performing the cut:

Helen realized she had to think about the entire system of why people perform the cut, and not just about the tradition of circumcision itself. She turned to aligning incentives for the traditional surgeons so that they would be able to drop that profession for good if they so desired.

At the end of every year, the circumcisers get money for cutting the girls (the November/December school holiday is the most common time to hold the ceremony). In Helen’s area, the prices are apparently as follows: If a girl is not a virgin, they get 600 Kenya shillings ($7.50); if the girl has a child, then the figure goes up to 700 shillings ($8.75); for a virgin, the price is about 300-400 shillings ($3.75-$5.00), “depending on which area and things like that.” The same month as the cutting normally takes place, “which is the end of November, is when people do the planting, so they use the money to buy the seeds, to buy fertilizers, to even dig their farms, so they’ll be able to plant some food for the following year.”

“So now what came to my mind is you know if these people drop this what next are they going to do, you know if they are to see a sense in their life. Because of course if they were getting money to buy seeds and fertilizers, [that money] is something that was helping many people in the family and even in their community.”

So, she looked again at the whole system, and the economics of the region, and provided economic incentives for the women to drop their knives. “In that community the housing situation is not very good. So I thought maybe approaching it through housing would also help them.” Ultimately, Helen put together a proposal to get a machine for creating building bocks, and trained the women to make building blocks so that they could sell or build with the blocks they could now make.

Women become Watchdogs:

In each successive seminar, the attendees of the previous one recruited other colleagues in the world of genital cutting services. At the second seminar, a higher percentage but still around only 50% of the participants were “fully convinced,” dropped their blades, and stuck with the program, at which point the number totaled 16. So it continued until they managed to have a solid group of 24 former “traditional surgeons” who formed their own group.

These women become the watchdogs, because they know the tactics of arranging illicit ceremonies (they had only recently been doing the same). These watchdogs might hear there is a ceremony to be held, or that a traditional cutter is on their way to perform a cut, and they would act fast to inform Rotich and the authorities. The watchdog system has helped Rotich and her anti-FGM colleagues stage a number of stings, and stop a number of cuts, but the system poses its own challenges. The largest, Rotich says, is that getting the information to the right person is difficult in and of itself – movement in rural Kenya is costly and arduous, and so a person might have to reach somewhere very far to pass on the information. These women often do not even want to use the phone because “[this is] not information that they would give openly because otherwise they will risk to be cast out of the community that they are fighting the cultural norms of.”

Helen also wanted to help these women to rise above their previous quality of life, and she tried to lift these women up beyond just having them give up female genital cutting. Many of the women were uneducated, so she would help them go back and learn a little something, even how to write their names. “And I was very happy because some… they cannot put their thumbs to press their signature, now they can write their names,” she recalls.

Posted By Charlotte Bourdillon

Posted Sep 2nd, 2011

1 Comment

  • sara mccracken

    October 25, 2011


    Helen has my utmost respect for her well thought out initiatives. Could any of these women have a career planning “alternative” coming of age ceremonies which do not involve cutting? Is there a local fund for anti FMG education( other than the Kakenya school for girls)?

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