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?
PAT 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