Over the next couple of days, I want to highlight the work of Kenyan women’s activist Helen Tapelei Rotich, featured in the youtube clip above discussing her own circumcision. Helen is a fantastic example of a Kenyan woman taking innovative and “homegrown” approaches to eliminating the practice of FGM. In the past ten years she has used secret networks of women who were formerly paid to perform female circumcisions and male community leaders to make extraordinary headway in the battle against FGM in her Kipsigis (a tribe) community in Bomet county. (note: Helen is not Maasai, but I believe that we are all fighting the same battle and have something to learn from each other’s successes).
“The reason I do this is because when I was young I really went through many things that when I look back many times I have tears running down my cheeks,” Helen recalls, quivering with emotion. At first Helen refused to be circumcised and her father allowed her to go through high school uncut, but because all of her potential suitors who came to negotiate for her marriage were not educated or came from the kinds of families brewing illicit drinks and products, she cracked under the pressure. She says she finally looked at her situation, and realized “I will not be able even to survive in the community … without going through the women’s cut.” Although she tried running away, “during those days nobody would even accommodate you because everybody is for it, so I didn’t see where I could run to.” What she wanted for herself was irrelevant; “unfortunately there is the community, and everybody thinks you should do what everybody else in the community is doing so that you are accepted.” She finally gave in and was given out for marriage, but she is proud that at least she was over 18 by the time she became a wife.
Even after being married against her will, Helen didn’t give up. She continued to get training with an eye to helping her community, including training in counseling psychology to help girls she saw around her who had been traumatized by FGM. In 2001 she left her job and decided to start being an activist “in relation to female genital mutilation” in Bomet.
“It was quite a difficult thing to begin with because in the community, which is the Kipsigis community, it would not be very easy for a woman to stand before men, before a crowd, and to speak. You know, the culture. So unless you are only speaking to women…but I knew, if I approached it only through women then again it would not be so easy because the women don’t marry themselves, it has to be they are married to men…..I said I think I’d better approach it in another way so it can be listened to.”
So, in coordination with the Women’s Federation for World Peace and the Maendeleo Ya Wanawake Organization, she began an Anti-Feminine Genital Mutilation program, that targeted male leaders, women circumcisers, and youth. I’ll write more in detail about these programs in the next couple of days.
Helen says that female genital cutting has largely died out in her Kipsigis community of Bomet, but there is the ongoing challenge that the neighboring communities still practice FGC (they are surrounded by two different Maasai communities, in Narok and Transmara). As she sees it, the most intractable part of female circumcision in this general area is that some girls really want to be married young because they don’t have school fees to continue with their education, and in order to be married they feel they need to be circumcised.
I admire her work because she recognizes that eliminating the practice requires rethinking the approach. She sees a system that is conducive to FGM, and is combating it by strategically educating not just one sector but each critical level of that system. This is a trend among the most effective agents for change here – they are learning from the experience of the traditional institutions (churches and the law) and breaking down walls in completely new ways.
I met Helen Rotich because someone recommended we invite her to facilitate at our April summer camp, where she led a number of engaging and powerful sessions on FGM, teamwork, and leadership. A former secretary (a career that was almost never heard of for a women in her area at the time she chose it), Helen now serves as the county chairperson for the Naendeleo Ya Wanawake (Women’s Development) organization in Bomet county.
Posted By Charlotte Bourdillon
Posted Aug 31st, 2011