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Campaigners step up fight against FGM 

For some people, the subject of female genital mutilation (FGM) and other forms of Sexual Gender Based Violence (SGBV) may be a tired narrative, but to 34-year-old Wendo Aszed it is a matter that should never fade from the national conversation.

For 12 years she has been fighting the ant-FGM battle, traversing far-flung areas in Nakuru and Baringo Counties.

Ms. Aszed radiates with confidence and is always ready to give riveting lessons about the vice to anyone who cares to listen. In her own words, she is ‘inseparable’ from different models of the female reproductive organ, each explaining how the organ looks after a woman undergoes the various types of circumcision, as well as their effects, especially during childbirth.

It all began in 2009 when engaged as a social worker at a humanitarian agency, based at Mogotio in Baringo County, she came face to face with the horror that girls, some as young as 9 years faced as they were subjected to Female Genital Mutilation.

The sight of many young girls being subjected to FGM, forced into child marriages, and burdened with the responsibilities of motherhood before they matured moved Ms Aszed to act.

With unyielding determination, Ms. Aszed sought the support of like-minded individuals to help her roll out a campaign that is promoting awareness among elders, youth, women groups, community opinion leaders, and politicians on the risks associated with FGM, child marriage, teenage pregnancies, and HIV/Aids.

Through her Dandelion Africa, a non-profit Non-Governmental Organization (NGO), Ms Aszed, has empowered and helped to rescue tens of girls in Nakuru and Baringo counties from the cut. The NGO also empowers boys to drop harmful cultural attitudes and beliefs around gender roles and norms and appreciate and protect their sisters from the female cut.

Her calling has taken her to the most secluded villages, and in the process is playing a major role in the reduction of FGM cases not just in the two counties, but also in the surrounding counties.

Ms Aszed indicates that the anti-FGM crusaders are alive to the fact that empowering women and girls is essential to the fight against FGM.

The anti-FGM drive has brought on board State and non-state actors to promote education, economic opportunities, and access to healthcare, which Ms Aszed affirms can help girls and women make informed choices about their bodies and futures.

Dandelion Africa has also been organizing and funding alternative rites of passage ceremonies where girls are secluded in seminars and imparted with positive cultural values while being encouraged to say no to FGM.

She holds that empowered women are more likely to challenge harmful traditions and advocate for their rights and that investing in the dreams and aspirations of the survivors will help break the cycles of poverty and marginalization that often perpetuate harmful practices like FGM.

But this hasn’t come easy. She has had to work hard, often putting her feet down in the face of fierce pushback. In the process has developed a thick skin. “In the traditions of the communities that practice FGM it is taboo to talk about this, let alone using replicas of the female reproductive organs, thus sometimes we face objections,” she says.

Public barazas organised by chiefs and village elders, community discussions, radio talk shows, and religious institutions have helped Dandelion Africa reach a large audience particularly men who hold sway on cultural matters.

The organization has also trained more than 30 youth and women as Trainer of Trainers for the anti-FGM crusade, who in turn are holding community and campus dialogues targeting the youth, students, elders, and religious leaders.

“We are gradually gaining ground in convincing our young boys that marrying an uncircumcised woman is the right thing to do and that it is normal. By educating them from an early age, we will be killing the market for the circumcised girls thus dealing with the vice permanently in the next generation,” offers Ms Aszed.

She says due to the spirited campaign, some previously conservative community members are beginning to appreciate that FGM is a violation of human rights, has no medical benefits, and that women who undergo the rite experience grave conditions like cysts, infections, complications during childbirth and even death-not to mention psychological trauma.

According to Ms Aszed who also doubles up as the Executive Director of Dandelion Africa, despite women, especially from the FGM hotspot regions continuing to suffer, they still lag in the fight against female circumcision.

“Women from these regions are still the perpetrators since most still believe in this culture, a fact that has become a challenge in this fight. It is an uphill task to try and convince people otherwise about a tradition they’ve held dear for many years,” she adds.

Ms Aszed believes that the anti-FGM war would only be won by ensuring the media continues to highlight FGM issues and also involve survivors in the fight.

“For years, this narrative has ignored the survivors who can tell the full story. These survivors could be even career women or even political leaders who went through the cut and who still carry the shame of being circumcised,” she notes.

She is however elated that the efforts being put in place by Dandelion Africa and thousands of other anti-FGM activists are bearing fruit going by the recent findings of the recent Kenya Demographic Health Survey (KDHS).

KDHS data from the 2022 report reveals a 15 percent prevalence of FGM in the country among those aged 15 to 49 years. North Eastern and Rift Valley regions recorded the highest percentage.

This is a six percent drop from the 21 percent recorded in 2014.

FGM was officially recognized as a form of violence against women and a violation of human rights in the 1993 Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women.

According to the World Health Organization, over 200 million girls and women have undergone female genital mutilation (FGM) in 30 countries in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia where FGM is practiced. This is a large number of women undergoing a practice that is not only outdated but also barbaric and inhuman.

If the current trends continue, a worrying 15 million additional girls between ages 15 and 19 will be at risk of undergoing FGM by 2030.

Some members of the Ilchamus, Pokot, and Tugen communities found in Baringo County and Kipsigis, Tugen, Maasai, Somali, and Kisii in Nakuru County practice the retrogressive culture.

Ms. Aszed indicates that the rite violates the rights of women and girls to health, security, and physical integrity, freedom from torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, and their right to life when the procedure results in death.

FGM, she adds also perpetuates cycles of inequality, discrimination, and oppression in our communities.

According to the Executive Director, the financial cost of healthcare for women living with conditions caused by FGM puts a significant strain on health systems and budgets, and the negative health outcomes of FGM hamper women’s and girls’ ability to meaningfully participate in society, negatively impacting on their productivity and entrenching further the cycle of poverty and inequality that drives the practice.

The programme promotes the empowerment of girls and women while ensuring adequate services and response for those affected and at risk of FGM to accelerate an end to the practice through the provision of integrated services linked to health, education, and economic empowerment as well as the strengthening of community surveillance and policing mechanisms.

Ms Aszed is troubled that as Kenya continues to introduce more comprehensive anti-FGM laws and policies, cross-border FGM has emerged as a new trend among practicing communities to evade prosecution.

She cites a study by the anti-FGM Board and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) which shows that the border areas of Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia, Tanzania, and Uganda have a higher FGM prevalence rate than the national averages.

According to WHO, Africa has one of the highest rates of FGM globally, with about 48.5 million being from East Africa.

Adam Kemboi, a Trainer of Trainers (TOT) in the anti-FGM campaign reveals that the initiative is engaging communication experts to help with community change in a framework that uses strategies of advocacy, behaviour change, communication, and community mobilization to influence both individual and societal change

Mr. Kemboi states that they are also properly coordinating messages and activities across various channels to reach multiple levels of society, from elders to mothers, the youth, the children, and the community

“We are teaching the community that the Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act was passed on 30 September 2011 and enforced on October 4, 2011, to advance women and girls’ rights and protect them against harmful practices,” he explains.

While noting that most FGM perpetrators are unaware of the legislation, the TOT educates them that Part IV of the Act criminalizes FGM and that The Act provides that if FGM is carried out and causes death, the perpetrator ought to be imprisoned for life.

The Act also criminalizes an individual who takes another person inside or outside Kenya to perform FGM on her. The Act further criminalizes people who aid FGM.

He says FGM should never be considered as a culture. “That is where we go wrong most of the time. Anything that subjects young girls and women to torture should not be considered a tradition, thus must be stopped,” he asserts.

Ms Rose Nereah also a TOT notes that the Constitution grants the freedom for one to exercise their culture, however, that freedom has to be carried out in line with other constitutional provisions.

She says the legislation also plays a vital role in eradicating FGM and that many African countries have passed laws criminalizing the practice and providing support for survivors. However, she expresses regret that enforcement and implementation of these laws remain a challenge.

According to Ms Nereah, once the practice ends, it will be a contributory factor to the achievement of Sustainable Development Goal targets.

She describes FGM as an archaic practice that should not be tolerated in any setup and needs to be countered by all means possible.

Ms Nereah explains that there are various reasons why females practice FGM; for cultural redemption, some do it to qualify for marriage, and have a sense of belonging or acceptance in the community, it can be a rite of passage or a way of enhancing hygiene.

By Jane Ngugi and Dennis Rasto

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