KENYA: JHR works to engage men as allies in fight against FGM

The anti-FGM elder engagement forum underway

Seventy-six-year-old Joel Kalya is a happy elder. He has seen his daughters through school successfully in a region where female genital mutilation (FGM) is a mandatory rite of passage for girls, pushing them into early marriages.

Joel hails from Chepkokogh location in Lomut Ward in West Pokot County, Kenya, safely tucked in the hills approximately 110 kilometers northeast of Kapenguria town. The rough terrain in the remote area is hardly accessible by vehicles, and one needs a four-wheel drive to navigate the impassable roads.

The area has increasingly been mapped as a high-security hotspot because it borders Elgeyo Maraket County to the north, which has experienced perennial insecurity concerns. Residents of Chepkokogh village have been in constant conflicts with their neighbours, the Marakwets, mostly over grazing land and other natural resources. This has largely derailed development in the region, where illiteracy levels are relatively high. As a result, Chepkokogh is marked as one of the locations with the highest prevalence of female genital mutilation (FGM) in Kenya.

When he joined more than 150 other elders for a public sensitization forum on February 25, 2023, it was clear in Joel’s mind that things needed to change. “Let’s have a committee of people who do not fear to speak and stand against FGM,” he said. “We have able and fearless people among ourselves that will not fear saying no to FGM.” Joel’s commitment to stand up against FGM is crucial in ending harmful cultural practices against girls.

Benard Ogoi, JHR’s Kenya project coordinator, believes that “elderly men are influential as the custodians of cultural beliefs and practices. It is important that they are educated on the harm that FGM has on women and girls. With this knowledge, they are able to play an important role as change agents in helping to end FGM and all other forms of gender-based violence in their community.” Benard says engaging men as allies to establish positive and progressive gender attitudes is vital to changing a culture that has historically reinforced gender-based violence.

I-Rep Foundation, a women-led community organization in the West-Pokot county, organized the forum in collaboration with JHR’s Canada World Voice For Women and Girls’ Rights project. The forum mobilized male elders to be allies and support local anti-FGM campaigns as part of events to commemorate International Zero Tolerance Day to end FGM.

The relentless work of anti-FGM campaigners like I-Rep Foundation Executive Director Domtila Chesang

is gradually changing mindsets in the community.

The men-only engagement renewed hopes of a breakthrough with the end-FGM campaigns, considering that the area witnessed a high prevalence of FGM during the December 2022 school holidays.

During the Covid-19 pandemic that resulted in the indefinite closure of schools, Chepkokogh ward recorded the highest number of reported and undocumented FGM cases in Kenya. Community end-FGM campaigners report that hundreds of girls were subjected to the most severe type of FGM (type 3), also known as infibulation.

The participants, who included local chiefs, religious leaders, and cultural elders, deliberated on their role in protecting women and girls from all forms of harm. The animated public dialogue, punctuated with song, dance and laughter, involved demonstrations on how FGM affects women and girls. It was an eye-opener to men and enlightened them on why they needed to participate in speaking out against the vice and put a stop to it.

Even though Kenya has criminalized all forms of FGM, inadequate resources and ineffective enforcement of the law continue to fuel impunity. Domtila Chesang, I-Rep Foundation executive director and founder, said, “Despite over 100 girls being cut during this period, no arrests were made and no psychosocial support was offered to the victims and survivors of FGM.”

For decades, the elderly male elders who wield enormous power have remained a stumbling block in ending FGM in their community. “At least three previous attempts to bring them to the discussion table have failed,” said Domtila.

The relentless work of anti-FGM campaigners like Domtila is gradually yielding positive outcomes in changing the minds of men in the community. “I always tell people in my village that FGM is not a good thing,” one of the elders said, adding, “I came to realize that women go through a lot of problems during childbirth due to FGM.” He encouraged his peers to refrain from forcing their daughters to undergo FGM. He instead urges them to invest in their education while underscoring the important role of girls’ education in improving family livelihoods and general well-being. Joel contends that education has changed the lives of his daughters. “I am a happy man because I am getting the fruits of education, I can tell you for sure, education is sweet,” he said. “We should all say no to FGM.”

As a sign of commitment to making Chepkokogh village free of FGM, approximately 20 elders led their peers in making cultural declarations to rally the community to abandon the practice and collaborate in all initiatives geared towards ending FGM. They acknowledged that their village had lagged for ages in development due to FGM and vowed to add their voices to the end-FGM campaigns by declaring their stand on the practice.

JHR’s Canada World: Voice for Women and Girls Rights program in Kenya works to build synergy and enhance cooperation between the media, CSOs,and the government on policies that empower women in all aspects of life.

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