Friday, 22 January 2016

In Conversation with Ethiopian activist Tesfaye Melaku Aberra

Ethiopia has more than 80 languages and 200 ethnic groups which makes the country a diverse melting pot of cultures and traditions with differing concepts of identity. One of the traditional practices that hold up is Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). The national rate is approximately 74% though, but due to the mentioned diversity of cultures, in some regions, the rate can create a gap between 27% and 91%.
Type I, II and III are practiced depending on the area and the age at which FGM is performed. 52% undergo FGM before the age of 1 making it performed earlier in the North than in the South of Ethiopia, where the practice is mainly associated with marriage. Also the justifications differs from region to region and from culture to culture: some people mark it as part of their cultural identity, others as a religious demand to ensure chastity and prevent rape.

In 2009 the National Service Radio of Ethiopia (NSRE), e FM Addis, started airing the 226th episode of the serial Drama Sibrat, which means trauma. The drama, in Ahmaric, was aired twice a week till 2010 addressing the dangers of FGM, making an impact in many communities. 

Though there is no specific law addressing FGM as a form of abuse, the Penal Code, which was ratified in 2005, criminalizes the practice. Even though the law has been enforced, few cases have been reported. The main problem as activist Tesfaye Aberra said, is that FGM needs to be addressed properly by the Government through health, agricultural and educational policies. 

VALENTINA MMAKA : Tesfaye, would you like to share a bit of your background?
TESFAYE MELAKU ABERRA: I was born in Dessie (400 km north of Addis Ababa) in 1979. There, I completed my secondary education. In high school, I began to engage in academic and vocational training sections and was actively involved in different extra-curricular activities, including organizing and managing in school gender clubs.
When I joined the Alemaya University Department of Agricultural Extension and Communication, I was also involved in some outside activities. From the beginning, I was deeply sorrowed by the inequality of women in my community, so after graduating I decided to work with organizations that are involved in issues related to women in development. This helped me to become an activist for gender equity and equality. Now I am a development activist specifically on women and children rights. I founded a local NGO called ‘Light Ethiopia’ that works for women and girls empowerment. FGM and Early, Child and Forced Marriage ECFM are the main intervention/focus areas of the organization. 

VM: Talk about your activism on girls and women’s rights in your country.
 TA: I started my gender and women rights activism at high school. At that time, I tried to establish a Gender Club for boys only. In the club, I did trainings and presentations on the inequality of men and women in Ethiopia. Since then I have been focusing on the unequal system between boys and girls in my country. During college time, I had the opportunity to organize different campaigns to create public awareness to fight against gender inequality. 
 Later, I joined a national NGO working on Women in Development/Gender and Development (WID/GAD). Here I designed women- focused development projects aimed to reach marginalized women and girls. I’m currently training both boys and girls in addressing women issues. I organize different events in sport and culture and provide training for rural based Health Extension Workers, youth and teachers alike. The goal is to empower girls and youths to say no to early-, child and forced marriage and FGM in their community. 
Through my current organization, Light Ethiopia, I am working on empowering young girls, and capacitating the youth to engage in social action projects related to ECFM and FGM to stand against these practices.
Since we gain lots of experience in project organization, Light Ethiopia wants to develop an advocacy toolkit to end FGM and ECFM in Ethiopia. I plann to use artists, thr media and influential people in our community to fight FGM and ECFM. In addition, I will strengthen my capacity- building programs related to end FGM/ECFM by training people under government structures such as rural health extension workers, teachers at rural primary schools, agricultural extension workers and other grassroots administrators and community leaders. 

VM: Ethiopia has one of the highest rate of FGM in the whole African continent, even though the statistics vary according to regions, Afar Region is 91% while Gambela (western Ethiopia) is 27% with a 74% national rate. Can you explain the reasons of this disparity?
TA: Although it is one nation, Ethiopia has more than 80 languages and around 200 ethnic groups. Some cultures like some parts of Gojam, in Amhara regional state don’t practice FGM at all. Like our cultural disparity, practices of FGM also vary, depending on region and cultural community. Even within one region, Amhara regional state for instance, some parts of Gojam don’t practice FGM, while around 78% of the community practices it in Wollo and Gonder. To be clear, though, it is important to note that the disparity is not due to anti FGM interventions or engagement of governmental and non-governmental institutions. In almost all region the anti FGM movement has remained the same size.

VM: Ethiopia outlawed FGM in 2004 but it is still widely practiced. What is the main justification for it in your country?

TA: As you said before, in Ethiopia 74% of women have undergone female circumcision at national level. The cause for this is, however, not, that we don’t have regulating laws. In Ethiopia the legal age for marriage is 18 years, but law enforcement is weak. The minimum age for consensual sex is 18 years, but 21.6% of girls aged 15-19 years have are married. 
In the 1960 Penal Code, there was a prohibition against torture and cutting off any body parts. Some interpreted this provision as a way of prohibiting FGM. Articles 16 and 35 of the 1995 Constitution protect women from bodily harm and from harmful customary practices. A new Criminal Code passed in 2005, specifically makes FGM a crime and aligns domestic law with the rights- orientated Constitution. 
Article 568 and 569 contain provisions on circumcision (meaning, in this context, Types I and II FGM and Type III infibulations respectively). In Article 568, the penalty for Type I or II FGM ranges from 3 months’ to 3 years’ imprisonment and a fine of no less than Birr500 – 10,000 (approximately US$ 27 – 528) or both imprisonment and fine. Article 569 focuses on Type III infibulations and provides that, ‘Anyone if engaged in stitching the genital part of a woman shall be punished by rigorous prison term of 3 to 5 years. If the practice causes physical or health injury notwithstanding the severe punishment provi
Although the law provides for persecution of perpetrators of FGM, in reality, traditional cutters continue practicing FGM supported by their cultural leaders. This happens because:

• Most people in rural areas do not see the police and courts as the place to go to resolve the problem faced within the community. 
• Awareness of the law is very poor, even among law enforcement agencies
• Reluctance by some law enforcement officials to enforce fully the laws
• FGM happens in secret where enforcement action is stronger 
• restricted involvement of civil societies 
• Limited capacity of civil society in Ethiopia to perform anti-FGM/C awareness creating events
• Low involvements of media, artists and writers in social affairs in Ethiopia
• Spiritual and cultural taboos that the community believes on FGM

VM: What is the position of the government related to the practice in the country?
TA: The Ethiopian government has ensured that ‘a solid policy and a programmatic basis has been laid’, with HTPs being included in all the major policy and legal plans across the country, including policies on women, health, education and on social policy. Other measures include the establishment of a ministry of Women’s Affairs 2005, an inter-ministerial body set up to combat violence against women, including HTPs, and the identification of FGM by the Women’s Affairs Office as one of its major goals in its five year plan (PASDEP). In 2011 the ambitious Growth and Transformation Plan set five year targets to reduce FGM to 0.7% by 2014/15. At the Girl’s Summit in London, the Ethiopian Government represented by his Deputy Prime Minister Demeke Mekonnen, showed his position towards FGM by saying: “Our approach puts girls at the heart of our commitment, working closely with them, their families and communities, to end these practices for good and break the cycle of harmful traditional practices.” He said that Ethiopia would achieve its goal by 2025 through a strategic, multi-sectoral approach and highlighted four areas where the government has promised to take action:

1. Through incorporating relevant indicators in the National Plan and the National Data Collection Mechanisms including the 2015 Demographic and Health Survey to measure the situation of FGM and Child, Early and Forced Marriage (CEFM) and to establish a clear bench mark
2. Through enhancing the coordination and effectiveness of the National Alliance to End Child Marriage and the National Network to End FGM by engaging different actors with key expertise
3. Through strong, accountable mechanisms for effective law enforcement
4. And, through an increase of 10% in financial resources to eliminate FGM and CEFM (Child Early and Forced Marriage) from the existing budget.

Therefore, in conclusion, the Ethiopian government, in my opinion, stands in a good position to end FGM in Ethiopia theoretically. But in practice there is limited and small intervention working related to awareness creation among the community about the effects of FGM. 

VM: I guess FGM is a taboo issue in Ethiopia like in most of the FGM practicing countries, so it is not so much outspoken (tell me if things have changed). Are media engaged in spreading information country wide? 
TA: Ethiopia is a patriarchal society and there are moral and cultural restrictions on women and their behavior. As in other African countries, sex and sexuality are taboo subjects in Ethiopian culture including FGM. A woman who discusses sexuality openly could be labeled as ‘immoral’ or ‘loose’. Though domestic violence and discrimination of women are endemic in Ethiopia, cases of women and girls who have experienced gender based violence are under-reported due to ‘cultural acceptance, shame, fear or victim’s ignorance of legal protections. Despite some progress on prevention, there is a lot left to do. There is little change in rural areas and major changes in urban areas. These cultural taboos still exist within our community especially in the rural parts of the country. There is no continuous awareness creation program about the impacts of FGM whether through government or private Media. Media engage in news only if there are some events and activities performed by other agencies. They try to engage if there is a sponsor or air time purchasing from NGOs. Even government ministries have no continuous printed or electronic media program to transmit the message to the public to end the problem in the country. 

VM: I remember some years ago the Ethiopian Radio broadcasted the drama Sibrat (which means trauma) to address the issue of FGM providing counseling and helping people to end this practice. Do you believe these kind of initiatives could help to raise more awareness? 
 TA: Sure, I strongly believe that. As you know, media has a magical power to change the attitude of the community within short period. So, this initiative can help us to create more awareness about FGM in Ethiopia. There are opportunities to transmit our message through radio, or television in our country. In rural Ethiopia there’s at least one radio every three families. In addition there are household’s level electric power distribution programs in almost all rural villages in different regional states. 
Therefore, if we re-start such types of initiation (like Sibrat) in Ethiopia, there will be more opportunities to address many farmers earlier. What I recommend, in this context, is to prepare the initiatives in different languages and transmit them on local and community radios to the national radio and television. (Now almost all regions have its own television and radio programs in their own language) 

VM: During the last year, in some African countries like Kenya, Nigeria, Ethiopia, male activists fighting FGM have appeared alongside women. According to you what made men suddenly concerned about FGM? Do men really still demand FGM from their women?
TA: Men can play an important role to end FGM in developing countries. As we all know in patriarchal communities men at household level can influence their family to say agree or disagree with practices and believes.Therefore, if we involve men, specifically husbands to create awareness about the negative consequence of FGM, they can stop this within their families. Furthermore, in developing countries most of the decision makers such as religious leaders, doctors, teachers and politicians are men. They have the potential to act as change agents in this process but they need to become more involved. 
In some parts of the Ethiopia, people believe that FGM is practiced because of spiritual order from their creature. But it is not true, religious leaders can play the role of preaching the community as this is not God’s demand. Moreover, men can influence their wives, sisters and mothers by teaching them that FGM is not a good practice for women. As we all know, ‘FGM violates a woman’s personal freedom’. In my opinion men are equally affected by FGM as women are. Because girls and women are traumatized due to the practice, men can talk on behalf of them to the public about the problem. 
In my community, especially among the youth, men don’t demand FGM of their women, but they are forced to practice it because of cultural, religious and clan leaders. Therefore, it is expected to build their capacity to say no to FGM.
In Ethiopia, in the Amhara regional State a few parts of the region are free from FGM and most men love women from this area for their sexual statisfaction. This is one of the indicator for men who can’t demand FGM from their women. But as we have discussed above, it is taboo to speak out and discuss with the community about their needs and express their ideas to the public. 

VM: We know that FGM is practiced by women on women, even though it is a patriarchal idea. As a man in modern Ethiopia, what is the perception of FGM among men? 
TA: Some studies showed that almost all men in Afar, Somali, Amhara, Oromia and Tigray regional states of Ethiopia support the continuation of FGM in one form or another, admitting that the tradition of leaving girls untouched has no room in their culture. In Muslim communities however, they support any type of cut, they believe this is one of the religious requirement. 
Many men in Ethiopia are not allowed to see untouched girls, they believe that girls must be circumcised during their adolescent period, reducing female sexual hyperactivity. In our culture, there are few uncircumcised girls in the new generation. 
 Men in the rural parts of the country do not support the total abandonment of FGM. They consider it as harmless. 
Different justifications are put forward for the defense of girls’ circumcision. Those who are sympathetic to religion (Muslim Community)forwarded totally different arguments for the continuation of the practice than those who were supportive.

VM: How could the involvement of men contribute in the decline of the practice in Ethiopian society?
TA: Men should believe in their presence to contribute to the decline of the practice in Ethiopia. As I have mentioned earlier, in our patriarchal community men can stop FGM with one word "No" in their family. In addition to that, I’d like to say that in Ethiopia almost 100% of cultural and religious leaders are men. So they can mainstream the issues of FGM in their preaching. Boys can also play a major role in training girls in their schools. Men can say: "I will not marry circumcised women." 

VM: Many Ethiopian immigrants continue practicing FGM also in the diaspora, returning home when the cutting season comes or they do it illegally in their new countries. Are you aware of any Ethiopian woman who applied for asylum on the basis of FGM (following the procedure indicated by the UNHCR) and succeeded? 
TA: Of course there are some information dispatched to the community regarding the diasporas returning home to cut their daughters, but I haven't got an opportunity to talk with them simply because currently in Ethiopia this practice is still done secretly. 

VM: You work with Light Ethiopia, an organization which aims to educate and empower girls. You’ve been supported by Western NGOs, which is what happens in most of the countries where FGM is practiced. What would you like to say to the investors, institutions, government of your country to take a stand and support local grassroots organization in fighting social injustices? 
TA: It is difficult to wish such types of support from the investors, institutions and the governments in most developing countries. They don’t believe in the elimination of FGM as a priority issue in the country. They lack proper intervention in the development activities and rely on NGOs as financial institutions. However, I would like to say to them to consider financial, technical and logistical support for grassroots organization fighting social injustice in our country. Working together is an excellent way to end injustice and poor governance in the community whether it comes from our taboos or political institutions.

VM: What is the best strategy to tackle FGM in Ethiopia and how much information and education have to be implemented? 
TA: In my opinion, investing in girls education is the basic and best strategy to stop the spread of FGM, at least in the next generation. If we educate girls, we educate the future adults, mothers and wives. We have the capability to ensure that educated families won’t cut their girls anymore in the coming generation. Another basic strategy to stop FGM is to train health extension workers, agricultural extension workers and teachers to mainstream the issues of FGM in their day to day activities. Due to the national health, agricultural and educational policy of the country, one Kebele (the lowest administrative structure of the nation) has at least three health extension workers, three agricultural extension workers and ten teachers. Therefore, if we train them to do so they have a grassroots structure to discuss the issue with the local people. In addition to that, using media such as local community radio, regional radio and television and national radio and television to transmit the message to the whole people with reasonable cost is also really basic strategy to create awareness among the community.
Female circumcision is one of the major means of income for the traditional cutter in most parts of the country in Ethiopia. Availing some Income Generating Activity for such cutters is the other best strategy to contribute to ending FGM in one generation.

Originally published on Pambazuka

Friday, 30 October 2015

Conversation with Severina Lemachokoti on FGM in Kenya

Severina Lemachokoti
Female Genital Mutilation leads not only to severe physical consequences but also psychological and emotional ones ranging from depression, to lack of self-esteem, isolation, solitude, marginalization, insecurity, memory loss and fear of sexual intercourse to post-traumatic stress disorder. A counseling psychologist working with girls in rural Kenya shares her experiences in this interview.

I wanted to talk about the psychological consequences of girls undergoing FGM and how they relate with others within their community. It was also important to determine what is needed, in this case in Kenya (but it can definitely fit other countries) to educate and train girls and women to end FGM. I spoke to Severina Lemachokoti. Severina underwent FGM when she was 13. She is a former primary school teacher and a psychologist working with Kenya’s Anti-FGM Board (under the Ministry of Devolution and Planning) in Samburu County. She is also the founder of Naretu Girls and Empowerment Program, a community-based organization focused on educating and empowering girls and women. 

It’s important that Severina calls on all psychologists and teachers in the country to take action and create a network of support for those girls and women who have already undergone FGM and those who are at risk.

VALENTINA MMAKA - As a psychologist most of your work is done with girls and women who have undergone FGM and survivors, can you share with us how is you do this?

SEVERINA LEMACHOKOTI - As a Counseling Psychologist, I offer girls and women psycho-social support. This helps them come out of the trauma from the cut and the stigma they feel after learning about the effects of FGM. This is usually done after or during the trainings. When cases of FGM are reported at the hospital, I follow up to help the patients/victims. It’s a work full of challenges because there are no facilities that help the survivors to stay and get the necessary support they need in one place.

VALENTINA MMAKA - We all know the physical and psychological consequences of FGM but please share with our readers what are the most common psychological conditions manifested by the girls you work with in your community.

SEVERINA LEMACHOKOTI - The girl's self-esteem is lowered by the practice. A young Samburu girl is not supposed to answer back to the men. They are supposed to be submissive. The rituals that surround the cut force young girls to act like adults even when they are still at a tender age; this leads to early marriages. The trauma of the unknown pain follows the girl to womanhood. The pain is from the razor blade without any medication. Those women who have shared their stories and from experience say that the pain from FGM is worse than that of giving birth because of the veins that are cut (in the clitoris). The girls are not prepared for the cut/ceremony. It’s not like the boys who are prepared by the whole community. Therefore the girls are gripped by anxiety and fear of what awaits them. 

In a situation where girls are married immediately after the cut and almost immediately after go to their husbands (whom they do not know beforehand) they fear the new environment. When infections or cysts manifest, women do not talk about it and they end up living with the pain and trauma.

VALENTINA MMAKA - Most girls undergo the cut during school vacation. How deep is this practice still rooted in the county you work in? How much do the girls acknowledge the consequences of being cut?

SEVERINA LEMACHOKOTI - Yes, girls are still cut during school vacation. Those who are not in school undergo the cut anytime as long as the parents are ready to have them cut. The practice is still deep-rooted in most of the communities in Kenya. Girls still fear to make decisions about saying No to FGM.

VALENTINA MMAKA - What normally happens at school when girls come back after the cut? How are they perceived from younger mates and, most of all, what is their real emotional and psychological state?

SEVERINA LEMACHOKOTI - Most girls feel good because they think they are more mature than the rest. They feel superior and accomplished with the cultural requirements (they are always told that they are ready for marriage). On the other hand, in schools where sensitization has been done, girls feel stigmatized and embarrassed upon realization of the effects of FGM and fear of what they might go through at a later stage in their lives ( womanhood/giving birth). They become anxious of their future and what fate might bring them.

VALENTINA MMAKA - Do they ever question why this is done to them in a more critical way a part from knowing that it's a tradition? I mean have you ever encountered girls who would like to take a stand against FGM regardless to tradition?

SEVERINA LEMACHOKOTI - Most of the girls go through the cut as a cultural practice and a rite of passage. They just know that they have to go through it. Many girls would like to say NO but only a few, so far, have succeeded to stay without being cut (but still they fear speaking out about it). Others would like to, but their parents and family can’t allow them have the last decision. Most girls are not assertive.

VALENTINA MMAKA - Do you think there's a difference, in terms of emotional and psychological stability, for a girl who lives in the west to be brought home to be cut during summer holidays, and a girl who lives in the village within her community? I mean to say, is there a difference in the impact that FGM has on the two in relation to their life experience?

SEVERINA LEMACHOKOTI - Yes, the girl from the west might be more informed of the effects she will suffer on an emotional and psychological level, but she might also have no idea of other cultural practices surrounding the cut, and this will traumatize the girl since she will not be ready for it. A girl who lives in the community is aware of the culture and the requirement. She might have a rough idea on when she will be cut, so she can prepare herself for the cut. Her trauma will be less than the girl living in a western country.

VALENTINA MMAKA - Living with a permanent physical and psychological scar like the cut is something that millions of women unfortunately have to deal with on a daily basis. What is the path to become self-conscious of themselves getting rid of the stigma and discrimination (especially if you live outside FGM practicing communities) in order to make impact despite the experience they had?

SEVERINA LEMACHOKOTI - A lot of sensitization is needed and psychological counseling centers to be put up. Counseling is needed for post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety.

VALENTINA MMAKA - How much the of trauma from the cut could lead to a mental health condition? 

SEVERINA LEMACHOKOTI - This is something that we need to look into and do more research on.

VALENTINA MMAKA - We know Kenya has a lack of adequate psychologists and psychiatrists and services are often expensive or non-existent in many areas of the country. What could be the best strategy of support to help one who has undergone FGM?

SEVERINA LEMACHOKOTI - The campaigners should have basic skills of psychological counselling. Those who are already in the career should think of how to start centers that can help with cheaper services.

VALENTINA MMAKA - Teachers, not only in Kenya but worldwide, are not trained to deal with FGM survivors or girls at risk. How important would it be if teachers and school facilitators could be properly trained? How much of their training and preparation could make impact in a classroom?

SEVERINA LEMACHOKOTI - Teachers are key persons who could help girls understand their rights and help them realize the decision of saying NO. Their training is very important because most of them have the trust of the children (girls) and this gives them an opportunity to educate girls on the effects of FGM. Teachers will help girls love school more than the retrogressive cultural practice. 

VALENTINA MMAKA - Immigrants often continue the practice while abroad, despite the fact they are confronted with a new culture, just to keep a tight the bond to their original culture. Migration is a tough experience for many and many communities feel that they don' t want to change what has been in their culture for centuries. From the ground, how much is the real pressure of communities on their youth about FGM?

SEVERINA LEMACHOKOTI - I have not encountered any migrant who has undergone FGM but I only read about them. In most communities FGM comes with responsibilities of the traditions which make every youth to comply with the cultural laws. The youth have an obligation to fulfil in the community because they are the ones who will see the culture progress to the future generations.

VALENTINA MMAKA - Many young girls who don't want to undergo the cut are often left alone, with no choice than to follow what the family requires from them, unless they run away from home. Addressing a message to these girls, what would you suggest? And to teachers?

SEVERINA LEMACHOKOTI - As much as the girls would like to run way from the cut, there are no places for them to seek for help. Counselling centers, educational centers or rescue centers are needed to help these girls. Teachers need to be trained so that they can be able to handle the survivors and the rescued girls.

VALENTINA MMAKA - What's your opinion on how Kenyan institutions are handling FGM? 

SEVERINA LEMACHOKOTI - Most institutions in areas where the practice is done have allowed the sensitization programs to be carried out but there is still a lot to be done. There should be a curriculum to guide institutions for FGM. 

Published on Pambazuka 743 (23/09/2015)

Friday, 4 September 2015

#2 Conversation with Jecinta Isei

Last Week I had a conversation with young activist Jecinta Isei from Rombo Village about her advocacy to eradicate FGM (Female Genital Mutilation) in her community. Here a short video where she introduces herlself and explains the importance of her work as an activist.
Well done Jecinta!

Friday, 28 August 2015

In Conversation with Jecinta Isei, a young activist who fights to eradicate FGM

Kenya outlawed Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in 2011, despite this 27% of the people still practice it.  The Demographic Health Survey of Kenya shows that FGM among 15 -49 years declined from 37% in 1998 to 27% in 2009, which  shows how slowly this culture is changing.
FGM is known to be a cultural practice, though some people refers to it as a religious demand despite the fact that no religion mention it. 
In countries like Kenya FGM is deeply rooted among the Maasai, the Pokot, the Samburu, the Somali, the Kuria, the Kalenjin and many more people and it is considered a taboo. Even though there are many organizations (international and grass root) working to eradicate FGM, the practice is still carried on. 
As a matter of fact the Kenyan Government should make mandatory FGM as part of a complementary educational curriculum on human rights in all the schools of the country, so that the cultural change that FGM needs to be dropped, could start from the youth who are called to be the real change makers of the society.
In my years working with FGM survivors I met many activists and artists committed in using their art for social justice, and I always feel very delighted when I meet with young activists who despite all the difficulties they face, they never give up and always have clear in mind their final goal. One of these is Jecinta Isei from Rombo county.

Jecinta Isei is 20 years old and she has a dream, a dream that many girls of her age, coming from rural Kenya, have: get an higher education.  Jecinta has also one more reason to want to go to college, she is an activist advocating to raise awareness on FGM in Loitokitok County. Going back to her personal story, she told me that the reason why she couldn’t finish her education is that she always refused to undergo the Cut.  Her family finished to pay her school fees for not following the tradition which is, in this remote region of Kenya, deeply rooted. This didn’t stop Jecinta to look for her biggest goal:  become a well trained activist who can stand for thousands of girls to save them from the cut.
Thanks to local teachers she is now able to visit schools and meet with young students where she speaks about the dangers of FGM. Life is not easy she admits, being discriminated and ostracized because she is not cut, but Jecinta doesn’t give up. She knows what is the right thing to do, reaching the age of 20 being uncut in Maasai culture, is quiet an achievement and this tells how stubborn and courageous she is.  Here’s our conversation.

VALETINA MMAKA - Jecinta where do you live and what is your background?
JECINTA ISEI – I come from a humble background in Rombo, Loitokitok sub county. I live with my mother because my father passed away long time ago when I was still a small kid. Life has been a bit harsh on me now that I come from a culture where FGM is very rooted and thanks to God I escaped the menace through schooling outside the Maasai environment.

VALENTINA MMAKA - When and how did you start being an activist advocating against FGM?
JECINTA ISEI -  As a young girl I really disliked the fact  that we have to undergo the cut. I realized that all my primary school friends who underwent the cut while we were still in class 5, dropped out of school and got married. Some even died while giving birth at home due to lack of knowledge from both their uneducated parents and from the men who married them. That is why I said to myself that I must work hard, stand up to be a woman of substance, and support my fellow girls not to undergo FGM so that they don’t get married at an early age.

VALENTINA MMAKA - Being just 20, you’re one of the youngest activists in your community to raise awareness on Female Genital Mutilation. How did you become an activist?
JECINTA ISEI - Through the hate I have for FGM and whatever I see in my community especially my class mates, I decided to work hard and talk to young girls and prove to them that you can be a leader and woman without the cut.

VALENTINA MMAKA -  Growing in a culture that demands girls to be cut, what have you been told by your family about the importance of being a circumcised girl?
JECINTA ISEI - My extended family believes that if you give birth as a woman without the cut you will kill your parents, which is the greatest myth and it has the biggest impact in our community now that people believe in it.

VALENTINA MMAKA -  You go in schools in your community talking to girls and boys about FGM; do you receive support from the teachers? What is the main challenge you face every day?
JECINTA ISEI - The biggest challenge I have is cultural believes and transport to the schools now that no organization has been supporting my work and I am willing to get to the farthest schools.

VALENTINA MMAKA -  And what is the feedback from the students? What do they really know about FGM and what do they think about it?
JECINTA ISEI - Through a short documentary that I carry with me on the phone, photographs and at times support from AMREF whenever they go for their outreaches. Most of the pupils, if given the chance to deny the cut, they would stand up and say no to the whole  community.

VALENTINA MMAKA - What is the best reward you get form your activity?
JECINTA ISEI -  The girls really make me strong and feel the power to move on now that their eyes are on me and they believe that I will be their savior.

VALENTINA MMAKA - You haven’t been cut, how did you manage to reach 20 without being cut in a community where usually girls are cut between 9 and 15? How did your family react to this decision?
JECINTA ISEI -  It has been a tough fight and thanks to my mother for making sure that I don’t stay at home whenever schools were closed because it would have been forced on me, studying outside Loitokitok was my escape way out.

VALENTINA MMAKA - You said your family didn’t pay your school fees to attend college, was that because of not wanting to be circumcised? What was your first reaction? What are you doing to change this?
JECINTA ISEI - Yes not undergoing the Cut have been my nightmare with some of my community members and it has contributed 100% of my school fees not being payed and now my mother cannot afford to pay my education, I am struggling hard to get a sponsor so as I can pay my collage fee and  continue supporting young sisters.

VALENTINA MMAKA – Jecinta if a girl refuses to undergo FGM, objectively what option is she left with?
JECINTA ISEI –  To be honest there’s no other option than running away from home or seek help from the local chiefs or church leaders.

VALENTINA MMAKA - What is your relationship with your girl friends? Do they judge you because you’re not cut?
JECINTA ISEI - I have a few girls who are my friends now.  90% of the girl I know are married and they are told not to associate with me because I haven’t undergone the cut, they call me a baby, so most of my friends are from other communities and the girls I meet in  schools during my visits.

VALENTINA MMAKA - Have you had some support from age mates (female and male) for your stand against FGM?
JECINTA ISEI - Yes through the Youths Resource Centre in Loitokitok I meet up with age mates who are really supportive especially who have already undergone the cut and they always tell me they regret having underwent the cut.

VALENTINA MMAKA - I guess education will improve also your activism, what do you expect to achieve in the next future?
JECINTA ISEI - God willing I would like to study and get a degree in gender and community development, I was called upon to join a collage and study project management and community development so I have to raise 80,000 ksh to do diploma for the whole year as school fees that is 12 months.

VALENTINA MMAKA - In Kenya there are quiet some movements and activists trying to eradicate FGM in their own communities. Di you ever confronted yourself with some of them? How do you think FGM will be eradicating within the Maasai people? Do you think that by involving men could help?
JECINTA ISEI - I have been working with some organizations, but not many organizations in Loitokitok are working to end FGM. I think FGM can be eradicated if we talk to the parents especially the Fathers and am glad that a movement of men involved to end FGM and promote girl education was started for the Morans (Maasai Worriors), they are the ones who marry and they are also fathers so their involvement will highly bring a change and impact.

VALENTINA MMAKA -  What is your biggest dream? My Biggest dream is to have more girls standing out to study, reject FGM and see a successful mentorship programs for girls in Loitokitok Kajiado County.
JECINTA ISEI -  Complete my Education so as when I talk to them they know I am a well informed woman with dignity.

I invite all the readers to contribute in giving support to Jecinta's cause even just posting here a comment. She may carry her interview in the schools she visists and share with students and teachers to make impact. Your concern would be much appreciated.

Jecinta's story will be part of my new coming book: THE CUT. Global Voices for Change. Breaking Silence on Female Genital Mutilation (Italian and English editions by Edizioni dell'Arco, 2015).

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Meeting Author Pat Lowery Collins 3#YABooksOnFGM

This is the last of a series of 3 interviews I had with YA authors who wrote about Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).

This week's guest is Pat Lowery Collins author of The Fattening Hut , Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2005

Pat Lowery Collins has been teaching Creative Writing at Lesley University. She is a writer, painter and illustrator.

Helen doesn’t want to stay in the fattening hut. She’s told her mother that she’s too young, not ready for it. Why must she marry so soon—and gorge on rich meals for months, until she’s heavy and round, like a good bride? Like her mother and sister before her, like all the women of her tribe. When she learns the terrible secret the fattening hut harbors, Helen becomes even more defiant and confused. Lonely, scared, and feeling confined by her family, culture, and tradition, she fights for a chance to be educated, young, and free.

VALENTINA MMAKA -  When did you first encountered FGM in your life and what made you decide to write a novel for young readers?

PATO LOWERY COLLINS - I first heard of FGM from my daughter when she was a young physician.  She worked in an area where there were Somalians and other immigrants who came to her to be treated for complications from the procedure.  She also told me how in America it was grandmothers who continued the practice, often performing the cutting themselves on their grandchildren when the parents were absent.  I did not have an urgency to write about this then but only later when I learned about the fattening rooms. Some of my adult friends had teenaged children at that time who were anorexic.  I wanted to write a story about the dichotomy between our Western idea of beauty and the ideals of beauty in other cultures.  When I found that the fattening practice also included FMG, I knew I needed to address this issue as well.

VALENTINA MMAKA - FGM among other forms of child abuse and violations of human rights, is not so much seen in literature. There is a long list of anthropological/ sociological essays and memoirs, but in terms of novels, short stories and poems or plays, there's very little on a global scale. Can you reflect on the reasons of this?
PAT LOWERY COLLINS - It has been my experience that young adults do not want to read about this.  My book has been assigned in schools, but I don’t believe a young woman would pick it up of her own accord.  Most have not heard of FGM and do not want to think about it.

VALENTINA MMAKA - What was the feedback like from your young readership? Did you ever confronted with readers from FGM practicing communities?
PAT LOWERY COLLINS - I’ve had very little feedback from a young readership.  The book received wonderful reviews, and a number of adult readers have told me that it is a beautiful book and they felt the subject was handled with sensitivity.

VALENTINA MMAKA - Why according to your view Young readers do not feel like reading a story about FGM? What do you think is the idea behind not picking a certain kind of book? And would this choice be different if the reader comes from a FGM practicing country or for example from the US?
PAT LOWERY COLLINS - It's been my observation that young women in this country are just exploring their own sexuality and are uncomfortable with the subject of FGM.  They are not personally threatened by it and don't think any concerns about it apply to them or their world.  Perhaps FGM information should be included in their sex education classes. 

VALENTINA MMAKA - What would you like to say to our fellow writers across the world to encourage them to write about FGM to sensitize readers?
PAT LOWERY COLLINS - It seems to me that the subject needs to be handled delicately and presented to a young person in the presence of a trusted adult who is capable of answering their questions.  The story itself must be gripping enough to encourage someone to read it all the way through.  Perhaps it would profit from the immediacy of a more contemporary setting.

VALENTINA MMAKA - Against those who assume that we cannot write about FGM because no other than a survivor, understand what is it, what would you say? (it's just a provocative question as there are some "radical" activists who oppose people who are not from a certain culture to  speak  out about FGM). 
PAT LOWERY COLLINS - I have seen a few remarks and reviews about The Fattening Hut that would suggest I don't understand the cultural context.  As far as not being able to write about it because I haven't experienced FGM, there are many things I haven't experienced such as slavery and rape, but I can be outraged by them.

VALENTINA MMAKA - As an artist, what kind of researches did you do for Fattening Hut? What did you keep in mind while writing? Did you want to convey a specific feeling towards the issue?
PAT LOWERY COLLINS - I read whatever I could on the subject.  Some books were very graphic and alarming; others were personal stories of living with the disfigurement.  For the setting I invented a multi-ethnic tribe that lived on an island. This was primarily because I didn’t know enough about any particular area where FGM is practiced and because I didn’t want to offend any specific race or people.  Because I saw that the island of Anguilla had the topography I needed for my story, I spent time there learning about its flora and fauna and history, which included a history of shipwrecks and the absorption of survivors into the tribal population. Although I knew FGM was accepted in many societies as a necessary rite of passage, I felt its roots were firmly set in paternalism and ignorance.  Naturally, my intent was to convey it as a highly negative practice and to show how the women of a society were often the ones who performed it and caused the practice to continue.

VALENTINA MMAKA - In your novel Helen, the main character, fights to receive and education to free herself, how much is important education in allowing children and teens to stand against bad cultural practices?
PAT LOWERY COLLINS - I think education is essential in teaching girls to value their bodies and themselves.  That’s why I introduced a renegade, Helen’s Aunt Margaret, to show how mentoring and support from a trusted adult is an important key. 

The Fattening Hut is another YA novel to read in schools and to add to any teen's bookshelf. 
You can find Pat Lowery Collins here