FGM Abolition Leads To Female Empowerment In Rural Kenya

Founded in 2012, the grassroots women’s rights charity Pastoralist Child Foundation (PCF) works to abolish female genital mutilation (FGM), child marriage, and gender discrimination in rural Kenya. I spoke to co-founder Sayydah Garrett about the foundation’s mission and the inspiring changes it has wrought within Samburu and Maasai society.

Sayydah’s involvement in Kenya began in 2012 whilst on Safari searching for elephants. Mingling with Kenyan staff at the lodge where she was a guest, the resident of Glen Ridge, New Jersey, soon befriended a Samburu tribesman called Samuel Leadismo. After exchanging polite conversation, Sayydah recalls the tone of their discussion diverging abruptly from pleasantries into far more serious territory. “Samuel turned to me and said: ‘Sayydah, I want to start a community-based organization to eradicate female genital mutilation and forced early marriage before it’s my youngest sister’s turn to get cut.'” Enquiring as to what he was referring, Sayydah soon learnt of the horrors of FGM occurring in Samuel’s home village and across Samburu society. “Samuel had promised his dying mother that he would never allow his sisters to undergo the same cruel practice that she had endured,” she explains.

Samuel’s heartfelt vow represented a deep fear of the consequences inherent to FGM, a practice that Samuel knew had the potential to leave his loved ones disabled, traumatised, or even killed. Upon learning of this deeply personal calling to save Samburu girls from ritual cutting, Sayydah entered into a partnership with Samuel and the two became co-founders of PCF. Sayydah would use her grant-writing expertise and network of friends and family to raise funds for the project internationally, whilst Samuel would rely on his extensive network of educational and healthcare professionals to educate local communities on the dangers of FGM and benefits of female empowerment.

This challenge was a sizeable one, as the ritual cutting of girls remains a time-honoured tradition across much of Kenya and Sub-Saharan Africa. “Emorata,” as the process is referred to in the Maa dialect of Kenya and Tanzania, has resulted in approximately 95% of girls being cut within Kenya’s Samburu and Maasai tribes. The cutting of girls’ external genitalia (alongside the even more destructive process of infibulation) symbolises a girl’s transition into womanhood, endowing her with a marital value that ensures her family receive a significant dowry. Even women who manage to avoid being cut, regardless of the societal status they subsequently achieve, often remain characterised as inferior, materially worthless and ‘immature.’ PCF’s broader agenda, beyond simply halting FGM, is to overcome this deeply engrained gender-based discrimination.

The foundational method used by PCF to achieve this goal is self-empowerment via education. Workshops explaining the dangers of FGM and the need for female equality are led by educated pastoralists, whose opinions tend to be better respected by community elders. Employing specialists with a personal insight into the communities they are teaching showcases the foundation’s dedication to an organic model of social development. These community educators focus on describing the immediate and long-term suffering attributable to FGM, emphasising the tendency for wounds to become infected (notably with HIV/AIDS) and impaired reproductive capability. Girls and adults are also taught about the emotional repercussions of cutting; how the practice undermines trust between those cut and the close family members who regularly fulfil the procedure. Teaching girls about the burdens of post-FGM life, such as forced marriage (usually to a far elder husband), conjugal slavery, domestic violence, and bullying by pre-existing wives further serves to undermine acceptance of the practice. Education on child, sexual and reproductive health rights, teen pregnancy, HIV/AIDS, gender-based violence, self-confidence, self-awareness, sanitation, and the importance of staying in school, all contributes to a holistic message of female self-empowerment. The majority of this teaching is completed during school holidays, coinciding with traditional ‘cutting seasons,’ which maximises girls’ awareness of the dangers they may face in their home community.

Supplementing these educational elements, PCF has also supported the wider development of Samburu and Maasai society. Radio broadcasts and community forums have been used to spread messages conducive to gender equality and the concept of human rights. Various projects including livestock fattening, a women’s jewellry business, and an upcoming enterprise financing the sewing of girls’ school uniforms have all been supported by PCF. In developing pastoralist society both socially and economically, the charity has been incredibly successful in winning support for its stance against FGM. Nonetheless, these successes have been hard-won in a climate not always accommodating of change. Local elders in Samburu were initially hostile to the program of reform advertised by PCF, with Samuel receiving anonymous death threats due to his role managing the organisation. The elimination of FGM has sometimes been perceived as an erosion of revered culture, something Samburu and Maasai men are taught from an early age they have a duty to protect.

The challenge for Samuel and his team was to reshape these attitudes, teaching the guardians of tradition that protecting their community meant outlawing FGM, not condoning it. Walking this fine line between respecting tradition and aiming to re-direct it has been crucial in achieving results. Accordingly, traditional coming of age ceremonies deemed critical to Samburu and Maasai culture have been adapted to celebrate girls’ transition into womanhood by alternative means. Festivals that incorporate music, song and poetry have been substituted for ritual cutting, maintaining a sense of reverence for ageing within what remains a society predicated upon gerontocratic values. “We have no intention of disrespecting the Samburu and Maasai tribes. Rather, we are dedicated to preserving the beautiful aspects of their traditions. They are beautiful people, proud, spiritual, love music and the arts, have a strong sense of family and community, and respect their elders. PCF only wants to remove the harmful vices that greatly marginalize girls and women.”

The fruits of PCF’s labour have been apparent for all to see. Teaching, community investment and earning the trust of local elders have turned the tide in the fight against FGM, with an estimated 2,000 girls avoiding mutilation since 2012. One village has outlawed the practice entirely, with other communities moving towards a similar blanket ban. As local communities increasingly reject FGM and notions of female subservience, the number of girls accessing education has skyrocketed. Such has been the demand for secondary education that an entirely new girls’ secondary school was constructed in Archer’s Post, Samburu County, and opened in January 2019. Furthermore, as a result of purposeful fundraising, PCF has been able to support girls lacking the financial resources to empower themselves. This year, 16 girls are being supported through full sponsorships for secondary education, with a further four young women attending university via philanthropic donations. This record of success has been recognised by the Kenyan NGO community, which awarded Samuel the inaugural “End FGM Male Champion of the Year” in 2018.

Looking forwards, Sayydah recognises that there still remains a way to go in achieving full gender equality and an end to FGM in the region. Whilst a great deal has been achieved in Samburu County, the Maasai inhabited Narok County requires greater investment to produce lasting socio-cultural change. Resistance to anti-FGM initiatives is more prevalent amongst the Maasai, and Narok County hosts a population nearly four times the size of Samburu. Ultra-competitive struggles to win funding also exacerbates PCF’s goal to continue fighting FGM across Kenya. “Funding is always the greatest obstacle we face; it is incredibly difficult to gain access to suitable funds in a region saturated with so many worthwhile organisations. We must find increased funding as soon as possible, especially since Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta has declared to end FGM in Kenya by the year 2022.” This battle for resources that Sayydah describes has become especially fierce in the wake of UNICEF’s decision to move away from central Kenya and closer to the Somali border, drawing financial support northwards in its wake.

Nevertheless, the future for the anti-FGM movement in Kenya remains encouraging. With the results being won by organisations such as the Pastoralist Child Foundation, the power of FGM over local communities appears to be waning. The quest to inculcate women’s rights in Kenya and across Africa remains ongoing; however, one might argue that positive steps towards greater gender equality, symbolised by the fight against FGM, are making progress. Hopefully, this turning of the tide in Kenya will continue and progression towards full gender equality will become an equally unstoppable force across the entire continent of Africa.

Sam Peters


Leave a Reply