Finding My Voice & Protecting Girls from FGM/C

Most people who knew me as a child knew me as a very shy and timid little girl. Yet, today I am outspoken: I can argue with you on the subjects I feel strongly about! One of those subjects is gender equality. My passion is protecting girls and young women, in my own community and beyond, from female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C).

I work as a community facilitator with Amref Health Africa in Marsabit County, Kenya. The project is called Koota Injena, which means “come, let’s talk”. We work within four communities – the Borana, the Gabra, the Rendile, and the Samburu – to end FGM/C and early and forced marriage, and to redefine the value of girls.

My parents come from different communities. My mother comes from the Gabra community while my father is from the Borana. I have the most amazing parents who taught me the importance of embracing both these cultures and loving them deeply. Among the Borana and the Gabra, FGM/C is a deeply-rooted and culturally significant practice. The prevalence rate is around 98%, which tells you that almost every girl you meet will have suffered the cut.

“It’s only by talking openly that we will change things for good.”

The focus of Koota Injena, as the name suggests, is dialogue. In my community, like most African communities, it’s taboo for a young person to discuss cultural issues with clan elders. This is especially true for women and girls. Yet, I won’t give up. It’s only by talking openly with each other that we will change things for good.

No one can tell my story the way I can tell my story. That’s why I started speaking out. I decided, why not inspire people? Why not inspire young girls from villages deep in Marsabit County and make sure that they know the importance of education and that they know their rights.

Listening and Learning

All kinds of people cut their daughters, even political leaders, professors, and doctors. In Marsabit, we have women traveling from other countries (the UK, the Netherlands, the USA) to have their daughters cut, before returning home. Many of these people are highly educated. Yet they continue to believe that FGM/C is the right thing to do for their daughters.

That’s why I always say that it’s not just a question of education. It’s important to change mindsets and attitudes, too. I really believe that the work of changing culture can best be done by people from that culture. You have to meet people where they are. There is no one approach that works for all the different countries and communities where FGM/C is practised. We must listen and learn. And we need to make space for different perspectives and different voices.

Safe Spaces

In late 2019, I came to London for the first time and met local activists working to end FGM/C in the UK. I attended a workshop facilitated by Sarian Karim-Kamara, founder of the Keep the Drums, Lose the Knife collective, which brought together women from Sierra Leone, Kenya, and Guinea. Some were survivors of FGM/C, while some had been affected in other ways. They had friends or family members who had suffered the consequences of the cut or daughters they were trying to protect.

It was amazing to see these women, who didn’t know each other, speak so openly. They spoke not just about FGM/C, but about gender-based violence, relationships, family planning, reproductive health, and sex and pleasure. It was very emotional.

This is the same kind of safe space that we try to create in Marsabit. We have mother-daughter forums where women can talk about whatever affects them in their day-to-day lives. This is actually the most impactful part of the project: it’s the part people always ask for more of.

“You cannot force change.”

Meeting with these women reinforced to me the importance of understanding and respecting a culture before we try to change it. We all need to recognise that there are aspects of our cultures that are harmful to girls – but you cannot force change. 

Changing culture takes a lot of time. And people are not very receptive: first you’ll be insulted, you’ll be called names, and people won’t even come to your meetings. But as you keep talking with them, people will slowly come to you and they will want to speak out and tell their own stories.

If we are going to end FGM/C, we all need to take responsibility: start from your home and make sure you protect your daughters, nieces and sisters from this harmful act. We need more people to join us on the journey. Together, let’s end FGM/C!

Diram Duba is a survivor of FGM/C who works as a community facilitator with Amref Health Africa in Marsabit County, Kenya.

16Days: The Male Champion in Me

When we talk about gender-based violence, people still think that it’s a woman’s responsibility to spearhead advocacy movements. Men are often the perpetrators of GBV, and so it’s very important that men stand up as advocates.

Today, we reach the end of the 2018 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence.

Violence against women has recently taken on new, more sophisticated forms. An increasing number of women are, for instance, reporting cyber-bullying and abuse through social media and smartphones.
We need to have ‘male action groups’ consisting of young men and boys from all walks of life – rich, poor, from urban or rural communities, black and white. Groups must be formed or strengthened to raise awareness of positive fatherhood, and to educate community members about healthier and more equitable behaviors for men and women.
Investing in empowering male peer educators and male champions of change to prevent GBV can go a long way in communities that are deeply influenced by cultural and traditional norms.

There is urgent need for community members to hold each other accountable with women and men working together for greater gender equality.

During one of the community dialogues conducted by Peer To Peer Uganda in Buyende District, Uganda, one of the male champions explained how cultural norms, myths and misconceptions discourage gender equality and equity in his community.

To tackle this, male champions are empowered and equipped with information, so that they in turn can sensitize communities about sexual and reproductive health issues.
Today in Uganda, alcohol and drug substance abuse are among the leading cause of domestic violence in homes. Ineffective laws also pose a big challenge to the fight against gender-based violence. Laws such as the Penal Code (Amendment) Act 2007, the Domestic Violence Act 2010, the Sexual Offences Bill and the Marriage Bill do not address key aspects of gender-based violence. For example, none of these laws criminalize marital rape.
Men and women – including boys and girls both in and out of school – must be reached with knowledge and information on gender-based violence. Health facilities, local leaders, police, policy makers and government need to work together to put an end to GBV, and creating male champions will play a critical role in stamping out GBV in our communities.

Eradicating Violence in Rural Zimbabwe

When it comes to the fight against violence against women and girls, it’s quite safe to say that in my community we haven’t won yet. However, we are making progress, and this progress is due to the dedication of Village Health Workers (VHW).

Aside from offering health care, VHWs are instrumental in advocating for the abolishment of violence against women. I understand that women the world over face violence in so many forms, and that the problems women in my community are facing are mirrored in challenges women face globally.

It’s how we’re tackling gender-based violence in my community that makes us unique.

Royden-Nyabira in Mashonaland West province is located 50km from the capital city of Zimbabwe – Harare. We do not have a dedicated organization in my community working to end GBV, however, that has not incapacitated us from tackling the issue.

Village Health Workers are the ones who have taken up the advocacy as well the policing role in the fight to eliminate violence against women. VHWs act as the eyes and ears of the village and work with law enforcement agents and the Ministry of Health – which has resulted in a sizeable number of cases of GBV being reported.

There are still a lot of men who are resistant to change and continue resorting to violence as a means of solving family disputes. However, we do not tire because this is a fight which we must win. My community’s strategy has always been  simple and realistic – VHWs educate community members through conversation and discussion.

It’s perfect for us because there is room for everyone to interact and ask questions, while VHWs have the opportunity to answer and clarify things. There is a lot of information about GBV available online, but people in my community are very poor and cannot afford to buy data to access information on the internet.

By circulating information through word of mouth everyone has the opportunity to learn – even those who can’t read or write or access the internet – and so the possibility of leaving anyone behind is reduced.

Utilisation of what we have available is what makes us a unique community. Oral education has had a positive impact so far, and the community’s attitudes to GBV has changed – as evidenced by the reduction of GBV cases. Our Village Health Worker’s commitment to ending GBV has not been in vain.

On top of everything else, VHWs voluntarily conduct a door-to-door operation to engage with residents. This has helped victims of violence to come out of their silence and tell their stories in safety. The method itself has helped build trust between the health worker and the victim because without trust it’s difficult to convince victims to share their stories.

VHWs work on voluntary basis and are very committed. Their opinion on gender based violence is that it is an abuse of human rights and a health care emergency, which means that when reacting to reported cases of violence, they treat no case as an afterthought.

This door-to-door process is time-consuming but it is effective, as evidenced by the community’s growing understanding of what GBV is and the implications it has on the well-being of victims and the community as a whole. In my community, we believe everyone has a role to play in ending gender-based violence. If we can’t do it for the present then surely we have to do it for our future generations.

I believe that if people are willing and committed to the fight to end violence against women, we can and will be successful. We can and will reach Goal 5.2 of the Sustainable Development Goals so that by 2030, there will be elimination of all forms of violence against all women and girls in public and private spheres, including trafficking and sexual and other types of exploitation.

This is a very ambitious target, but it’s achievable if everyone joins in.

Involving Men and Boys in Efforts to Achieve a #BetterLife4Girls

One may wonder why men and boys involvement in matters like teenage pregnancies and child marriages is important. Well, it is clearly because behind every teenage pregnancy or child marriage, there is a male involved.

In the wake of the movement to end child marriage and teenage pregnancy, young people, parents, religious, cultural  and community leaders have to be called to action. Because these are issues that affect girls directly, it is of peculiar interest how pivotal the male voice has to be to make sure that the plight of a better life for girls is heard.

The fight for gender equality remains incomplete without male involvement as we stated earlier this year here on Girls Globe and we won’t repeat the statistics.

One part of of our agenda, from our recently concluded community dialogues in the eastern part of Uganda on ending under-age marriages and teenage pregnancies by Reach A Hand, Uganda supported by UNFPA Uganda, was to capture voices of men and boys as a way to continue involving them in anti child marriage and teenage pregnancy advocacy efforts.

Men and boys from the three Eastern region districts of Mayuge, Butaleja and Iganga, where the dialogues were conducted, showed keen interest in the topics, voicing similar concerns when it came to the causes of child marriages and teenage pregnancies. These included parental negligence, poverty, radical religious practices, minimal law enforcement, child labor, peer groups, western influence among others.

Mr. Muyagu Benard, the cultural leaders’ representative in Butaleja district noted that parents have shunned their responsibilities. “Parents do not spare time for their children, while others are too busy talk about sex education with their children,” he said, before condemning some for still believing in gaining riches through marrying them off, even at tender ages.

Mr. Gidudu Emmanuel, Officer in Charge Criminal Intelligence Butaleja district, warned that child marriages and teenage pregnancies lead to fatal damages like obstetric fistula, and in extreme cases, loss of their lives. He explained that these young girls’ bodies have not matured enough to carry the baby, let alone deliver it. This could lead to torn body tissues, a lot of blood loss and the possibility of death. He added that these girls get pregnant when they don’t even have enough food to feed neither themselves nor their babies and some of the children end up dying of hunger. He called upon everyone in the district to fight for change.

The Khadhi (Islamic leader) of Butaleja district, Sheikh Hajji Swaib Hussein Mukama, highlighted the fact that this is an era where girls should be taken to school because they are the mothers and leaders of tomorrow. He urged parents and fathers in particular, to support their children under the umbrella of religion to avoid teenage pregnancies.

The men in Mayuge pledged to stop individualizing children and vowed to make them a community responsibility so that there is joint effort in taking care of the girls and fighting against teenage pregnancies and child marriages.

On the other hand the young men advised their sisters to stay in school, avoid moving alone at night which can lead to being exposed to risks like rape and defilement. They further implored them to abstain, use condoms when old enough to have sex and to stand up for their rights in cases where they are forced into child marriages.

One of the young men, Desmond Ali, the chairperson Uganda National Students Association (UNSA) in Iganga district mentioned how he has already started contributing to bettering girls’ lives, by carrying a pad wherever he goes incase any of his female classmates need assistance. He also pledged to include child marriages and teenage pregnancy as an item agenda during the Annual Iganga UNSA meeting in February yext year.

Men and boys are often untapped-yet critical- resource in the fight against issues affecting society, especially under-age and child marriages. By not engaging them, we are stirring the pot deeper. Placing them at the forefront of this agenda, will transform respect for women and girls.

Featured Image: International Youth Foundation

Disruptive Voices: Breaking Gender Barriers in South Korea

Disruptive Voices is a South Korean Facebook group, that not only functions as an online social network, but actually organizes in-person discussions about gender in Korea, which I think is awesome.

Disruptive Voices is an offshoot of Varyd, a clothing line launched in June 2013. The founders of Varyd, Rydia, a Korean National, and Vanessa, a Korean-American, both survivors of physical and sexual violence, market their clothes using models of different shapes, sizes, colors, and age, to remind us that we are all beautiful.  Varyd has been featured on CNN, The Wall Street Journal, Korea Herald, DaeguCompass, Groove Korea, and Korean Buddhism

While working on their clothing line with the aim of improving their community, they established Disruptive Voices,

..a community/movement to help support, empower, validate, and further raise awareness (about gender issues) especially in Korea.

In an interview with the founders, Vanessa explained, “we are survivors and know there is a lack of communicative and safe support for people to come together (on this issue).” Through her own experience, Vanessa realized that psychological support and a space of safety is vital. “In order to move forward, I felt that (for myself) having a ‘circle’ or safety was essential, if not life saving.” 

Disruptive Voices hopes to curb the objectification of women. Rydia explained that in Korea there is a “ focus on materialism and external beauty as a means to prove your worth.”

The issue of plastic surgery and the obsession of it in Korea…shakes up values. Women are expected to become ‘perfect’ and young men are raised to value that. Women are no longer fellow humans, they are objectified. I worry about how this effects and harms the youth and how they value themselves and one another. There is (also) a stigma with reaching out for psychological support or therapy. People are concerned with how they are viewed and judged, this negatively affects potential self-security.”

The founders hope that Disruptive Voices can be a place of “embrace, safety, support, and care” for those who do not find support from family, peers, or police, and who may be ridiculed for coming forward about surviving sexual violence.”

We are warriors with and for those that feel alone.

Vanessa suggests, “for the older generation, Confucian roots are a big reason behind a lot of thinking. Some of (her) students are adults and they are very open minded and bright, but they have used Confucianism as a reason behind why women should cook and tend to children and men should work and drink.”

Disruptive Voices 1
Image courtesy of Disruptive Voices

Disruptive Voices has hosted “Womyn’s Talks” covering the topics of Violence Against Women, Dating, Media and Body Image. Women may only attend the “Womyn’s Talks”, however, Disruptive Voices has not forgotten about the vital role men play in closing the gender gap. Disruptive Voices held their first “Men’s Talk” this past Sunday. Disruptive Voices co-leader, James, has taken on the instrumental role of leading the “Men’s Talks”.

While talks are regulated by gender, workshops are open to everyone. Both talks and workshops focus on raising awareness about specific gender topics. The talks are held in Seoul, South Korea, but the group hopes to expand nationwide. Individuals from Korea, US, Ireland, India, and Pakistan have attended.

An important point Rydia shared is that “one of the greatest cultural traits of Korea is the collective mentality. Unlike the Western societies, Korean culture highly emphasizes ‘one for all’ instead of individualism. While it may sound like a negative thing, it helps get top-down initiatives by authorities and the government trickle down faster to citizens.  By targeting the power of media, celebrities and … collaboration with bigger establishments, we most definitely can make a great impact in Korean society.” Additionally, through including expats in the discussions, “people are able to expand their views, listen, and understand others.”

Disruptive Voices 2Rydia explains, “I am Korean. I love Korea. I want to do my best to make individual’s lives better. I don’t kid myself that I can change the entire nation and that they will all listen to what I have to say. But comments after the talks make me and the Disruptive Voices team happy.”

Disruptive Voices is partnering with TGN Korea for a nationwide campaign called “the S.H.I.E.L.D” occurring from April to May 2014. The campaign aims to inhibit sexual violence through self-defense classes and a neighborhood watch program to patrol heavy alcohol/party districts such as Gangnam (the neighborhood made world-famous by Psy) to make sure drunk individuals get home safely. K-POP stars and actors will be speaking and performing in support of the campaign.

All are invited to join Disruptive Voices events, but not required to share personal experiences. Please remember to be respectful and keep the space safe and confidential.

Disruptive Voices is open to topic ideas for talks, and is currently seeking LGBTQA individuals to serve as leaders for upcoming talks on issues affecting that population. Additionally, Disruptive Voices is in need of interpreters to translate from English to Korean and vice-versa. Email the founders at disruptivevoices (at) gmail.com!

Follow Varyd on Twitter @varyddesigns.

Meet the Blogger: Liz Fortier

This blog post is a part of a new interview series called “Meet the Blogger”, where you’ll have the opportunity to learn more about our bloggers, their motivation and passion and what shaped them to become an advocate for the rights and health of women and girls. 

LizFortierGGphotoThis is Liz Fortier, a Girls’ Globe blogger from the USA who is currently residing in South Korea. Liz has a Master’s of Public Health degree and has extensive experience from a range of countries around the world. Liz has consistently been invested in the health of marginalized populations and improving access to health care for those living in poverty. She is also a Certified Sexual Assault Crisis Counselor. Read Liz’s blog posts and follow her on Twitter @LizAFort.

Why do you blog for Girls’ Globe?

I blog for Girls’ Globe because of how much safer, healthier, and more innovative the world would be if girls and women had access to the same opportunities as men and boys. If more communities invested in girls, the global economy would be stronger, women would face less exploitation and oppression, people would be healthier, and the world would be safer.

I want to change negative views held toward women and feminists. I want to clear up misconceptions about the struggle women and girls face worldwide, even in communities in the US where many people think gender equity exists, but it really doesn’t. I think a new global perception of women is needed to create gender equity. Girls’ Globe articles shed light on the inequality women face today and what can be done to change it.

What led you to become an advocate for women’s & girls’ issues?

There are a lot of things that led me to become an advocate for women and girls. I was always told I could do anything or be anything. Being a girl did not mean that I had less opportunity. I always challenged boys and never felt a lack of confidence in my abilities next to a boy. When I started realizing that there was a difference in opportunities for girls and boys around the world and in my own country and even my community, I was disgusted. I became invested in learning about women’s inequality, and I knew I had to do something to advocate for women after…

  • traveling to Mexico and learning that many women there do not have access to contraceptives, appropriate reproductive health care, or acknowledgement of and care for HIV (that they may have contracted from their husbands).
  • traveling to South Africa and talking with women who have experienced domestic violence and who are forced to stay with their abusive husbands for financial support.
  • seeing a two-year old girl at an orphanage in Cape Town who couldn’t walk because she had been raped.
  • hearing a man in Cape Town say women are consenting to sex if they say yes to a man offering to buy her a drink.
  • walking by the same brothels in Kalighat, Kolkata, India, that Nicholas Kristof did in the Documentary Half the Sky.
  • seeing a woman with a deformed face in a Missionaries of Charity House in India who was purposely burned by her husband because he wanted a new wife.
  • learning that women intravenous drug users are at a higher risk of injury and death than male drug users because of gender roles.
  • learning about FGM!
  • watching the documentary “Very Young Girls” (Read Liz’s blog post about it).

I am an advocate for women and girls because I want to make sure every girl can be whatever she wants to be or do anything she dreams of, and I want to make sure she knows it. If girls know this, the world will be a better place for everyone!

What do you think are the biggest challenges and the greatest successes?

The biggest challenge of being an advocate for girls is standing up to the status quo that says women are inferior. For some women it is actually life threatening to stand up for themselves or call themselves a feminist. Since I am lucky to live in a place where I feel safe being a feminist, the biggest challenge for me is convincing people with very ingrained attitudes (this includes cultural and religious beliefs) that women are not actually second-class citizens. Even though this is a challenge I think it is the most exhilarating part of being an advocate for women. I must constantly learn new things, which is fun and important. I love a good debate, and it feels great when I prove to someone else the importance of investing in women and girls.

The biggest success of advocating for women is the impact of social media. Because of online platforms women’s voices are being heard! I strongly believe the gender equity will be accomplished globally, but it is happening more rapidly because of social media. I am so proud to be a part of Girls’ Globe and have the opportunity to influence the perspective of so many people on women’s issues. I hope I am creating more and more feminists everyday!

Why do you think the Girls’ Globe community is important?

The Girls’ Globe community is important because it is a portal of information. It is a place where women and girls can learn that they are not inferior despite what their community and others may say. Girls’ Globe allows girls to become empowered through reading stories of others overcoming oppression. Additionally, Girls’ Globe provides different ways for anyone to get involved in creating gender equity, which is such a big part of the fight. Girls’ Globe is a place for girls to learn about themselves and understand that they can change the world!