In this interview, Kenyan activist John Wafula holds the view that: “FGM is not a culturally enriching choice but rather a tool to isolate women and girls for disempowerment, domination and stagnation. If FGM negates girls’ right to education and healthy bodies then it ceases to be tenable as a cultural identity”. Wafula features in many national and county policy documents on mainstreaming gender equality and addressing human rights violations. He has been involved in GBV and HIV programs for over 10 years besides a successful career as a high school teacher and a short stint as university don. He is presently serving as a gender specialist at Global Consult Limited and is enrolled for a doctoral program in Gender and Development at Kenyatta University. John is one of Kenya’s activists, alongside Tony Mwebia, the Maasai Cricket Warriors, Samuel Leadismo, Samuel Gachagua, Francis Baraka and many more, who strongly believe in men playing a key role with women in eradicating FGM.
VALENTINA MMAKA - John can you tell me a bit of your background?
JOHN WAFULA: I am a gender specialist with a teacher’s professional background. I have been involved in teaching at high school and university besides doing gender equality programming which has focused on GBV and HIV. While teaching in Narok and Baringo counties I came face to face with effects of FGM as an impediment to girls’ education; but I engaged in actual programming to address the practice while working in Dadaab refugee camps.
VALENTINA MMAKA: Can you tell me more about your experience working in Dadaab?
JOHN WAFULA: I worked in Dadaab between 2007 and 2010 as a Gender and Development Program Officer with CARE International. My foremost duties entailed GBV (Gendered Based Violence) case management, advocacy, awareness creation and capacity building. The CARE program sought to prevent and respond to sexual and gender based violence forms such as rape and defilement, and also harmful practices such as early marriage and FGM that mostly affected girls.
Prior to interventions to address FGM, we undertook a baseline study to establish the prevalence of FGM in the camps, survivors, practitioners, and underlying causative factors. The reasons why FGM was practiced, mostly among refugees of Somali descent, included perceptions that uncircumcised women would be unfaithful and ineligible for marriage. Circumcisers, grandparents, parents, traditional birth attendants and aunties were mentioned as practitioners. Those opposed to the practice cited painful experiences, impact on the woman’s sexuality and human rights violations as the main reasons.
Our efforts to prevent FGM entailed creating awareness about its health, social and psychological consequences at the community level through focus group discussions, community theatre, marking of calendar days such as the International Day of Zero Tolerance to FGM and production and dissemination of print and electronic information and communication materials. We also invited religious scholars who professed the Islamic faith to engage the Somali community on religion-based myths that were peddled to justify FGM. Through clubs and focal point teachers, we sensitized school children on human rights, which also encompassed protection against any form of violence, FGM included. Youth in the camps were engaged through sports and vocational training. We targeted refugee community leaders for sensitization because of their visible position as community gatekeepers. FGM was also practiced among the predominantly Somali host community around the refugee camps. We therefore reached out to them through their leadership structures and the local administration to ensure they did not accommodate the practice.
We responded to FGM through a multi-sectoral and multi-actor strategy. CARE was a key member of the GBV working group in Dadaab, a platform that was used to follow up on survivors for documentation, medical support, justice and counseling. Linkages with community groups such as Men Against FGM, Ex-Circumcisers and community leaders ensured survivors were identified and consequences of having undergone the practice mitigated. As we addressed stigma associated with having not undergone FGM, the number of girls who had shunned it grew to a point that marriages involving uncircumcised girls were being reported.
VALENTINA MMAKA: Certainly majority of the refugees were from Somalia, one of the African countries which has the highest rate of FGM. Do refugees practice FGM also in the camp?
JOHN WAFULA: They do but it is extremely rare and discreet due to advocacy, awareness creation and legal sanctions. Mostly, such cases will be perpetrated by new arrivals from Somalia who are not conversant with the Kenyan legal system and girls who have succumbed to the stigma of not being circumcised and therefore demand for it. We, however, acknowledged collaboration between some refugees and some members of the host community to carry out such practices in locations within areas surrounding the refugee camps.
VALENTINA MMAKA: How did they respond to your work? Have you ever encountered reticence or obstacles getting people from FGM practicing communities accept to be challenged about their cultural beliefs?
JOHN WAFULA: Certainly! We encountered resistance especially among older members of FGM practicing communities. Some eked out a living by sustaining the practice and therefore stopping it would jeopardize their income. Others saw it as a cultural infringement, a perspective that is inflected by the fact that among those who pursue change are individuals who come from outside the FGM practicing communities. Those persuaded in this manner feel obligated to defend the practice as custodians of their culture. Misconceptions that associate FGM with Islam render the fight against the practice quite dicey and volatile. This is especially when anti-FGM advocates are Christians who would be construed to be waging war against Muslim values. Delineation of various forms of FGM has also been the genesis of resistance. For instance, the infibulation type of FGM is considered outlawed among some segments of the Somali community but they consider Sunna (pricking) as admissible. They would therefore agree with you on elimination of infibulation (Type III) but still defend Sunna (Type IV).
VALENTINA MMAKA: I’ve been working with refugees in Europe and Africa as well and one of the things that really make the hard experience of immigration possible to bear with is having this bond to cultural traditions. What is the plausible response to that?
JOHN WAFULA: Considering FGM as a cultural embodiment is fallacious. The practice should be demystified and illuminated as the human rights violation that it is, so communities can disconnect sustainably. FGM is not a culturally enriching choice but rather a tool to isolate women and girls for disempowerment, domination and stagnation. If FGM negates girls’ right to education and healthy bodies then it ceases to be tenable as a cultural identity. Communities must be alive to patriarchal chicanery that invokes the cultural argument to perpetuate discrimination, exclusion and validation of historical injustices against women and girls. Our Constitution celebrates cultural authenticity but voids cultural expressions that assault the dignity and rights of Kenyans. FGM is one such practice as comprehensively articulated in the Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act of 2011.
VALENTINA MMAKA: You’ve also promoted livelihood projects for ex-circumcisers in the camp, can you tell me in detail about these projects and how were they welcomed?
JOHN WAFULA: The projects were well received by beneficiaries albeit encountering implementation challenges. Research (baseline survey) had indicated that FGM practitioners earned income from the practice and would do anything possible to sustain their source of livelihood. We therefore initiated an alternative livelihoods project in order to dissuade them from the practice. We first identified the circumcisers through community leaders and anti-FGM groups, and asked them to establish their own group which they dubbed Ex-Circumcisers. The name meant they had accepted to stop the practice and would not be victimized for previous perpetration. As a group they established leadership structures and spelled out their business vision. We would then train them on basic business skills like book keeping and provide them with seed capital for investment. They channeled the resources provided into various enterprises including boutiques, confectionary and vegetables. Some flourished but others faltered along the way and bowed out of the business. The main challenge that the initiative faced was the fact that unlike instant earnings from circumcision business called for patience and diligence, qualities that the ex-circumcisers needed to develop over time. They would also be approached by community members to revert to the practice and be paid handsomely. That most circumcisers were elderly didn’t help matters in a business environment that called for astuteness and vibrancy. Yet the initiative remained a laudable win-win approach for us and them.
VALENTINA MMAKA: You also established men against FGM groups, can you tell me more about this campaign (where, when, how, feedback, impact…)?
JOHN WAFULA: It was a deliberate strategy to bring men on board in the campaign against FGM in Dadaab. Again, research had shown that girls were being circumcised so that they could be eligible for marriage to the men in the community. One therefore needed to stop the demand for circumcised girls in order to cut off the supply through circumcision. We aimed to change the attitude of men to find uncircumcised girls acceptable for marriage without feeling stigmatized and socially inadequate.
Some men against FGM groups had already taken off by the time I joined the CARE Gender and Development program in 2007. I was therefore involved in sustaining the groups and supporting the emergency of others. It was men in the community opposed to FGM who mooted the idea of anti-FGM coalitions because of what they thought would be a structured way of dealing with the challenge. Besides expanding synergies in preventing and responding to FGM in the camps, the groups also provided psychosocial support to members who were facing stigma and discrimination for apparently going against the grain by advocating against the practice.
I developed training modules and trained the groups on FGM within the humanitarian operation. I worked with them to develop information, education and communication materials and provided platforms and avenues for dissemination. The groups were instrumental in monitoring and reporting perpetration of FGM in the camps. They also supported survivors of FGM at the individual and family level to access a wide range of services, among them psychosocial support. They were consistently on the forefront of planning and executing advocacy events like marking the International Day of Zero Tolerance to FGM on the 6 February. We also helped them establish income generating activities of their own through training and provision of material resources to cushion them against general indigence in the refugee camps. Having mooted the idea, the men were glad that we gave it support and it came to fruition. Besides addressing FGM in Dadaab, some members had opportunity to travel around Kenya during 16 Days of Activism against Gender Based Violence for exposure and experience sharing. This emboldened them to be more vibrant in addressing not just FGM but all forms of GBV in the camps. The decline in demand for strictly circumcised women for marriage could be partly attributed to activities of the group. They also contributed to reduction in stigma against uncircumcised girls and expanded spaces for dialogue on FGM at the community level. The increase in the number of girls who had shunned circumcision further attests to the results of the efforts made by men against FGM.
VALENTINA MMAKA: Some men activists ask to be more visible in anti-FGM campaigns, why do you think men have been excluded or “marginalized” in this cause?
JOHN WAFULA: This is entirely a programming and methodological lacuna. Programs predicated on the ‘women in development’, as opposed to ‘gender and development’ school of thought, do not find much value in promoting male engagement in anti-FGM campaigns. They don’t! This is misguided because men are gatekeepers and custodians of cultural heritage which can only give way for progressive ideas if we dialogue with them. We can only stop FGM if men will be disabused of the obsession with circumcised women for marriage. As Chinua Achebe put it, you cannot by pass a man and enter his compound. When you salute a man at the entrance to his homestead, the reception is certain to be warm. Of course this perpetuates patriarchal pathways to social transformation but it has the merit of setting a thief to catch a thief.
From a cultural and moral perspective, I also acknowledge that the sexualized nature of FGM alienates men who are compelled to maintain strategic silence on FGM since it has to do with women’s genitalia. Confessing unconventional interest in FGM details is taboo and would be perceived as an encroachment on women’s privacy. The analogy of men being told not to set foot in the kitchen, which has been labelled as women’s space, obtains here. However, they should expect good food at the dining table. Women perform FGM for the benefit of men. As such men also marginalize themselves because they don’t want to be associated with a subject that sucks them into the tabooed narratives of women’s bodies. Indeed, those of us who have had the audacity to engage are looked at by some men as being effeminate whereas others, including women, think we are motivated by the pay cheque.
Donor biases in funding have contributed to estrangement of men from FGM discourses and interventions. Men-led organizations will tell you that no matter how persuasive their proposals are most donors would be reluctant to fund them in preference for women-led organizations. It simply deepens the stereotype that FGM and GBV, broadly, are women’s issues. A paradigm shift is needed.
VALENTINA MMAKA: How much is this issue also a men’s issue? What can really work on men’s attention to support “No FGM campaigns”? Why should they consider it their own issue?
JOHN WAFULA: Men have daughters, sisters, mothers and girlfriends who are suffering as a result of FGM. The case of a man in Marakwet who committed suicide because the wife conspired with others to circumcise their daughter is quite instructive. Men cannot find fulfillment in marriage and sexual relationships because of FGM. No man would wish to witness dysfunctional marriages because the joy and bliss of nuptials has been sacrificed at the altar of FGM. When society stagnates because of girls not being able to participate in education men are affected just like everyone else. As providers, men are the ones to foot the medical bill of health repercussions associated with FGM. FGM is in the same league with HIV, cancer and malaria. It is incumbent upon men to address FGM as a human rights violation if they seek to create safe and just societies where all live in dignity.
Men control resources and authority that can galvanize society for a radical shift in attitude towards FGM. There are also men who find FGM oppressive and are poised for action. We need to explode their energy by bestowing leadership of the anti-FGM movement upon them. For instance, legislation against FMG sailed through the Kenyan august House in 2011 because the motion was tabled by a male member of parliament from an FGM practicing community. Similarly, the PCEA church eradicated FGM in central Kenya under men’s leadership. This does not mean we marginalize women in the fight against FGM. No way! They know where the shoe pinches most, being the wearers. I am appealing for a cocktail of men’s focus and women’s vibrancy!
VALENTINA MMAKA: What is your opinion on how Kenyan institutions are working in protecting girls at risk, educating students and training professionals?
JOHN WAFULA: Against all odds, the institutions have remained resilient and impressive results have been notched. Presently, the Kenya Demographic Health Survey (2014) has indicated a nation-wide prevalence of 23%, down from 27% in 2008-09 and 32% in 2003. After enactment of the Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act in 2011, the Anti-FGM Board was established under the leadership of Linah Jebii Kilimo who is herself an icon in the fight against FGM. The FGM policy is being reviewed under the leadership of the Board besides vigorous media campaigns to sensitize the public on the Act. Research on FGM has been sustained both in the academia and public domains, bringing in new insights. Collaboration and networking among various state and non-state anti-FGM actors is equally purposeful and resolute. I would therefore say that across many Kenyan institutions, tracking data on FGM, policy development, legislation, awareness creation, training, research and collaboration are noticeable. I must also acknowledge that development partners and civil society organizations have widened access to rescue facilities for girls at risk besides taking them through alternative rites of passage programs during school holidays.
VALENTINA MMAKA: What do you think should be improved?
JOHN WAFULA: Mainstreaming FGM and the broad GBV content into the school curriculum remains nominal but it is something that can be done. Trainings have mostly been undertaken by CSOs but there is need for a national level curriculum that harmonizes all capacity building aspects on FGM. The anti-FGM Board exists and it has respectable leadership. However the body runs on a shoe-string budget that cannot make their work visible. A pedagogical re-orientation is necessary so that awareness and knowledge of FGM is inculcated in every young Kenyan to stimulate their agency in resisting it as a human rights issue. Political good will should go a notch higher. The current impunity where communities circumcise girls and get away with it scot-free is because the political class that should offer leadership in enforcing laws and policies is mum on the issue for political mileage. Networking should harness and strengthen the role of the church, granted the success of PCEA in central Kenya. Media should shift from glamourizing FGM and seek to persuade and change attitudes. Anti-FGM efforts should concentrate on practicing communities but it must be an issue of concern for all Kenyans. Declare it a national catastrophe!
VALENTINA MMAKA: Working on different backgrounds, what are the main differences that you found in rural and urban Kenya about FGM? Do urban people, girls and boys, women and men acknowledge what is FGM about?
JOHN WAFULA: Rural communities are more overt and passionate about their embrace of FGM than urban folks who display some level of hypocrisy. But it is also because urban communities are more conversant with applicable laws than their rural counterparts. Again, loss of social status with regard to being associated with FGM perpetration is more restraining in urban than rural places. Indeed, urban folks export their FGM victims to rural hideouts to evade the law and social stigma. Medicalization of FGM thrives more in urban than in rural set ups. Rural communities easily mobilize to defend the FGM practice than their urban counterparts who are mostly isolated and weak in conviction. Most urban dwellers are neither intimately aware of FGM nor do they value its supposed benefits including being sanctioned for marriage. They do it out of fear and ignorance that not practicing amounts loss of cultural identity.
VALENTINA MMAKA: Culture is a fluid, transformative, mutable process and it seems so evident that cultures have been changing ever since, what is really the biggest challenge related to FGM?
JOHN WAFULA: It is because its victims are women and girls. Period! Cultures, laws and policies that oppress men and boys change faster than those that singularly afflict women and girls. Look at apartheid? It collapsed because it was mostly men who were in prison. Victimization of blacks that led to the civil rights movement ended because men were also affected. I mention slavery in the same breadth. You must be aware that disenfranchisement of women took longer in most democracies than it was for certain categories of men. That is why FGM is not about culture. It is about patriarchal attempts to reconstruct the female body so that it becomes amenable to control for the aggrandizement of masculinity.
VALENTINA MMAKA: You’ve been telling me that you rescued a girl who was to be cut, would you like to share her story so to help others?
JOHN WAFULA: I would have preferred that she narrated the story herself. I am never confident that a man can adequately reproduce a woman’s experiences especially those that affect her sexuality and inner being. Men have a way of narrating women’s experiences that fails to resonate with the salience of attachment to their bodies.
Briefly, the girl was introduced to me by a member of our church who needed a family that could host her during April holidays (2015). My wife and I accepted and had the opportunity to support and mentor her till the holidays concluded and she reported back to school. During our short stay with her she indicated that going home at that time would have exposed her to FGM, which her parents supported and looked forward to. She loathed the practice per se and also feared that she would be married off and drop out of school once circumcised. She is a good friend of our family and comes to visit with other girls from Baringo who are attending the same school. She is sitting her exams this year and we are confident that she will excel.
Published on Pambazuka