Girls’ Empowerment Workshop

September 2014

Amongst the Meru in the Eastern part of Kenya, Female Genital Circumcision is as integral a part of the culture and community ethos as farming.

For two women in their 70’s, Sabina Kabui and Sabina Muthoni, cutting girls provides a side income that supplements their meager means as peasant farmers. Between them, the two have been personally involved in the circumcision of hundreds of teenage girls, since they first started over 30 years ago, and remain staunch supporters of the practice.

However, at the end of August 2014, the women found themselves in the unusual position of interacting with a roomful of girls who insisted they did not want FGM forced on them; that they want a future that does not only define them as wives and mothers.

This was at a girls’ empowerment workshop sponsored by Valvisions Foundation in partnership with St. Massimo’s Parish based in Mikinduri, Meru. The three day workshop was remarkable for several reasons; it was the first of its kind. According to the Chief of the area, the locals were astonished that anyone would advocate against FGM, one of their most sacred rituals, in public and with young girls who should be agreeable to undergoing the traditional rite of passage.

The workshop had brought together teenage girls from four tribes which still practice FGM; the Kenyan tribes of Meru, Maasai, Pokot and the Sabiny from Uganda. Valvisions Foundation sponsors the high school education of vulnerable girls from the Pokot and Sabiny tribes. Through its network of partners, VF has had a chance to interact with other organizations which have similar programs in East Africa.

The workshop in Meru presented a unique opportunity for the young participants to meet with teenage girls from other communities, who all face the same serious consequences from the cultural practice of FGM.

FGM is embedded in numerous Kenyan communities, and at least one tribe in Uganda. Despite the fact that the practice has been outlawed in both countries, the challenges of eliminating it remain. Many older women like Muthoni and Kabui who form the bulk of traditional circumcisers, declare that they cannot give up a treasured tradition that has been around for hundreds of years. Because FGM has the hallowed status of being a rite of passage from childhood to womanhood, most communities continue to focus on perceived benefits rather than the grave medical consequences like permanent injuries to the female reproductive parts, death and other psycho-social problems.

The 70 girls who attended the workshop in Meru spent a greater part of the three days discussing in detail the different cultural contexts surrounding FGM, and why the practice must be eliminated. At the same time, the group upheld the significance of ‘rites of passage’ within their communities and expressed the desire to take part in an alternative rite of passage that is symbolic and meaningful, without the spilling of blood.

As such, the highlight of the workshop was a graduation ceremony conducted to celebrate the girls’ successful participation as females currently empowered with knowledge which will protect them from the harmful practice of FGM. The girls now realize that the law is on their side; they are also fully aware that the dangers of FGM far outweigh the supposed benefits. As they held up candles in the dark, the girls declared themselves ‘birds of the light’, free to fly towards a future of their choosing.

 

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