30 June 2016

Playing to win! The Maasai Community determined to end FGM

Guest blog by Esther Njenga. 

Sixteen months after our first visit to the home of the impressive Maasai Cricket Warriors (MCW), Cricket Without Boundaries (CWB) and 28 Too Many were back to Laikipia North; this time joined by two coaches from the Lancashire County Cricket Club Foundations who were eager to learn how the tripartite teams use cricket to educate and campaign on important community issues has worked.

On 19th June a team of seven volunteers from London joined five other volunteers in Kenya and headed North to Laikipia County the rural home of the Maasai. Once again we had a diverse team most of whom were qualified cricket coaches, but among them was a teacher, midwife, social worker, a pro cricket player and a lawyer who all shared their specialised knowledge in making the project a success. This being our second trip up to Laikipia North there was much anticipation to note any progress and/or challenges to our novel project of using cricket coaching to tackle the harmful practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). We were encouraged by the fact that the 2014 DHS report showed a drop in the practice from 28% to 21% in Kenya, but were cautious to note that the practice was still at 78% among the Maasai community.

The main aim of the project was to build on our work in February 2015 to educate on FGM, targeting different groups from school children to community elders. To this end the team delivered cricket coaching with the integrated anti-FGM teaching to more than 2,000 children. It was encouraging for the team to see that the children remembered our anti-FGM message from our last visit and most supported the eradication of the practice armed with the knowledge of its negative consequences. However, some of the boys were still in support of the practice stating that girls who had not undergone FGM would not be good wives and mothers. While this was disappointing we were able to engage them together with the girls in conversation that provoked them to think about the reasons they gave for their stand. It was a good reminder that work to end FGM must actively engage men and boys.  

It was also sad to hear from girls who have been cut but the project helps them understand more about what has happened to them and how they can get support. Fatima (all names changed) disclosed that at a young age she had undergone FGM type 1, which was performed in a medical facility with regular check-ups afterwards. This was the first case of medicalisation that we had come across in this community. Fatima stated that she would challenge her parents on why this had happened and let them know of the negative consequences. Mary who had undergone FGM and now knowing the effects stated that she wanted to protect her 3 younger sisters and would talk to her parents about it to prevent the same fate on them.

At Il Polei primary school Jane approached us to let us know that her parents were in the midst of preparation for her to undergone FGM during the December holidays. We reported this to the school head who informed us that Jane had reported this after running away from home and a school protection order had been issued and the authorities were closely monitoring her while she stayed at the schools limited and stretched boarding facility.  It was encouraging that students who had taken part in our project know where to get help and that the school authorities were taking appropriate action. In contrast, at Soit Oudu primary school the head teacher Mr Mwangi expressed his frustration as we noted that the number of girls attending class 8 and 7 had fallen since last year. He admitted that most had been stopped attending school due to FGM and consequently early marriage. He felt that more continuous education was needed for the parents and community members and more positive female role models who stand against the practice for the girls to emulate.  However this is a challenge in these remote areas.

Another aim of this project was to once again engage with hospital workers and community activists to increase their technical knowledge and learn from their experiences working with survivors of FGM. To this end we visited two community activists who run rescue centres for girls in danger of FGM and early marriage. They both noted an increase in the number of girls that report being at risk of FGM and while this was a good thing the consequence was that the centres were stretched and funding was scarce. The support given to these girls at the centres to continue their education and be the advocates for change in their communities is invaluable as a sustainable way to eradicate the practice and it’s far reaching consequences. With the hospital workers our midwife Katie held a training session to look at deinfibulation (opening of the vagina) on women who had undergone type III FGM. Sarah a nurse noted that while type III was not common among the Maasai she had come across a few cases at the health centre. It was a very informative session which ended with Alice the director of the centre stating that she would share the information with her colleagues to explore the possibility of this being turned into policy.

In this remote community highly valuing culture and tradition our engagement with the community elders in ensuring sustainable change was crucial. On our final day we met with a group of the community elders comprising of 4 men and 13 women.  As is their tradition the men and women sat separately. The meeting started with our respectful and polite Maasai Cricket Warrior Benjamin introducing the team which included Hannah CWB’s FGM project lead, Katie CWB volunteer and midwife and myself 28 Too Many’s African Coordinator. Hannah explained the reason for our visit with translation from Benjamin. The elders welcomed us noting that they remembered our last visit and appreciated our decision to come back. We inquired on what their views were of FGM and if they had seen any changes in the practice. The elders said that they had heard of the negative effects and there was a decline in the practice in their village. The women stated that their concern had been that their girls would not get married but having got a pledge from the warriors and young men in their community that they would marry uncut girls they were now at ease.  Notably, the community elders wanted to know more about the negative effects of the practice. Benjamin and I went through the various effects and at the end the elders all agreed that it was a practice that they wanted to eradicate. Encouragingly they requested for more in depth training on FGM so they could teach other community members. We agreed that the MCW were best placed to continue this training with the elders as they were local, could speak the language and were respected in their community by both old and young because of their various social campaigns.

Our second visit to Laikipia was another learning opportunity not just for the team but for the children, health workers, elders and community members we interacted with. It was not without adventure as our transport got stuck in the savannah and had to trek to our destination with the warriors leading the way. We also had to cope with very muddy roads and pushing our bus up a hill!

During the week it was inspiring that more and more people in this area are pledging to play their part in eradicating FGM. Change is taking place but there are still some challenges. One concern is the issue of medicalisation. We came across our first case in this remote location and are aware that there has been an increase of medicalisation of FGM in Kenya in the last few years (read more in 28 Too Many’s report on this issue). Anti-FGM messages must make clear that the practice has to be stopped and not medicalised.

Another issue is that it is important that boys and men are actively involved in the campaign and advocacy around FGM. The MCW are great role models for young boys and their pledge to marry uncut girls is encouraging more parents to abandon the cutting of their daughters.

Finally, there needs to be more support for those fleeing FGM and survivors through more funding for continued education, shelter and health care as appropriate. Existing shelters are over stretched and with support and care these girls become the future role models and champions of change.

Once again we leave Laikipia North inspired by the courage of the young people leading change in their community on to promote gender equality and end FGM and early marriage. We are optimistic that the positive changes we have seen since our first visit will continue and translate into eradication of FGM with the next generation. This latest visit has led to all us learning lessons about how to engage and empower all sections of society through education.

Once again it has been an honour to represent 28 Too Many in this work with CWB in support of the MCW’s campaign to tackle harmful practices within their community. We are proud that together we shall end FGM.

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