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.
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.