Cries of "Girls need education, NOT circumcision" echo through the streets of Meru, a rural district of Kenya. If you're busting myths - you need to be loud.
Kenya is working hard to rid the country of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). During FGM young girls will have their genitals deliberately cut with razorblades, most commonly before they reach puberty. FGM exists to prevent women from enjoying (and therefore allowing/encouraging) sex: the clitoris may be removed entirely, cut or sliced, the labia may be sewn up. FGM is purely a cultural practice - and is performed for no medical or religious reason. Girls who are cut suffer severe pain. There are significant risks of infection, and many women endure long-term effects such as complications during childbirth.
The practice has been illegal in Kenya for girls aged under 18 since 2001, and in 2011 a new law was passed making it illegal for anyone to undergo or promote FGM. However, 17% of girls in rural Meru County still undergo the cut - and many are completely unaware of its harmful effects.
The eradication of this practice requires simple education, and the action of some mighty women. Enter Margaret Ikiara, who heads up Child.org's partner organisation CIFORD. Enter Child.org, who are empowering CIFORD to track their impact and operate their programmes as effectively as possible to reach more women and girls. And enter Soroptimist International of Great Britain and Ireland, a mighty organisation of thousands of women who are collectively funding this work in Meru. Banding together on the Meru Women's Garden Project, these groups of mighty women have been working to educate more women and girls on the dangers of FGM.
Two years of transformational change
It has been exactly two years since the Meru Women’s Garden Project officially launched on International Women’s Day; a programme that has had big ambitions from the start to empower and educate the women and girls of Meru County. In that time, the Soroptimists have raised £105,000 to fund this work. The money is being used to fund agricultural training programmes, education around the dangers of FGM and nutritional training for young mothers.
Since the project launched, CIFORD has run four Alternative Rite of Passage sessions - working with 216 girls in total. An Alternative Rite of Passage session is designed to provide girls with a training session that gives them a feeling of becoming an adult, through providing some grown-up training and education!
Girls spend a weekend at the CIFORD centre away from their families and are educated on important social issues such as early marriage, teenage pregnancy and the short and long term effects of FGM. The girls are given an insight from someone who has undergone FGM and a nurse who has witnessed the complex medical issues related to the practice.
Check out this local news report that shows Margaret and some of the girls from an ARP weekend:
Do these sessions work?
One of the priorities for the Meru Women's Garden Project has been to find out the most effective ways to train and empower women and girls in Meru. We've collected some of the figures and feedback from these sessions, and here's what the girls said...
“I came to understand my rights as a girl, and how to go against circumcision. Through rite of passage we grow in skills and knowledge. I came here because I hear some people saying that this seminar is very important for our life”
“I've learned about how I will care for my health and eliminate things that will interfere with my health. I was taught things that I did not know about: e.g peer pressure, teenage pregnancy and early marriage... I did not know that FGM affects girls during the time of giving birth”
“I learned how to take care of my health and myself. Also I learnt about FGM - how to cope with it and traditional myths and beliefs the ameru cultural practices and the problems faced by girls who have gone through FGM.”
We also assessed how the girls responded to a series of statements, before and after the training sessions, to assess their understanding. .Here are some examples...
"Female circumcision is harmful to my health."
Before session: 53.3% agreed | After session: 88.14% agreed
"I have the necessary knowledge to make a decision about whether I want to undergo female circumcision."
Before session: 53.3% agreed | After session: 88.14% agreed
"If my parents wanted me to be circumcised, I would feel confident to express my opinion about undergoing circumcision."
Before session: 20% agreed | After session: 64.41% agreed
"I have a responsibility to help other girls understand the consequences of female circumcision."
Before session: 48.33% agreed | After session: 93.22% agreed
What happens next?
Since the first Alternative Rite of Passage Weekend in August 2016, more and more girls in Meru have shown an interest in attending these sessions to educate themselves and to help them make informed decisions about their future. By the girls sharing their experience of the weekend with their peers and their family it is helping to bust myths around FGM and how it is perceived as a necessary part of growing up.
We plan to work with more girls over the next year. We will be launching boys forums to help boys and men to understand the effects of FGM for them and their future relationships. We will also work with boys to cover topics such as drug and alcohol abuse and HIV/AIDS.
By working with both boys and girls in the community, we hope to inspire a whole generation to pass down important and accurate information to spark positive long-term change within the community and beyond.
This International Women’s Day, Child.org want to thank small local organisations like CIFORD for empowering and educating women and girls within their community and huge women-led organisations such as the Soroptimists who advocate and fundraise to help make this change possible. We are truly proud to work with such inspiring women.
To find out more about the Meru Women’s Garden Project visit meruwomen.org for the latest updates.">