Politics in the Face of FGM: Kenya Edition

Kenya is scheduled to hold presidential elections this coming August. In every election cycle, citizens engage in dialogue and negotiations with their respective political aspirants regarding pressing local issues. Based on past election cycles, these issues include infrastructure, healthcare, education, sanitation, food, security and peace – among others.

In democratic societies, communication between leadership and citizens ensures that information vital to the existence, survival and development of constituents is available to them in a timely and balanced manner. Thus, the visible silence regarding harmful cultural practices by the candidates vying for the various positions in Kenya this year is hugely significant.

Given the officialdom associated with  legislators such as Members of County Assembly (MCAs), Members of Parliament (MPs) and other elected officials, the campaign period provides a perfect opportunity for members of the public to access  prospective power wielders. This is particularly important because, apart from being eventually responsible for representing their people both at county and national level, legislators are responsible for making and amending laws. An early encounter can create a rapport between citizens and lawmakers that will be invaluable during a future term in office.

It is during campaign season that activists have a perfect chance to reach out to prospective candidates and have a genuine discussion about the need to include eradication of FGM as part of any political agenda. These negotiations could not only inform the party manifesto but also raise the possibility of creating an official policy – should the particular party and its leaders ascend to higher office. In this case, anti-FGM activists can piggy-back on political aspirants at the grassroots level to reach out to their party leaders as a means of escalating the message to discourage the practice of FGM.

More specifically, women political aspirants – by virtue of vying for a special political seat of ‘women representative’ – have a more powerful platform to mainstream ‘women’s issues’ within their agendas. They can address the issues that their male counterparts would still rather not talk about. Women representatives aspirants, irrespective of party affiliations, are by virtue of their position expected to speak on women’s causes without fear of losing votes.

Overall, I fault the donor community for the silence around FGM in current Kenyan politics. Despite being conscious that 2017 was an election year, they have not considered the importance of investing in activities aimed at bringing together anti-FGM actors and aspirants in areas where harmful traditional practices still occur. While it is understandable that donors may prefer to remain apolitical, when it comes to battling FGM they must be more willing to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty. FGM is, after all, a cross-party, urgent issue that requires massive political capital.

On a disappointing note, I fear that that most politicians will avoid talking about FGM among other harmful traditional practices for fear of losing votes. It defies logic how leaders elected on the promise of alleviating poverty and misery can ignore or even encourage a practice that continuously enslaves the electorate.

Celebrating Midwives & Partnerships that Matter

The lifetime risk of a woman dying from pregnancy and childbirth related complications in Kenya is high, at 1 in 55. According to latest data by UNICEF, the maternal mortality ratio in Kenya is 488 per 100,000 live births is unacceptably high. Only approximately 44 per cent of births are assisted by a skilled health worker, mainly a nurse or a midwife. Skilled attendance and particularly the role of the midwife continues to be advanced as a global priority and effective intervention for safer motherhood.

The IMG-20170503-WA0003International Day of the Midwife, May 5th, is a day to celebrate the wonderful work midwives are doing around the world. I, Felogene Anumo, a Girls Globe Blogger had the opportunity to speak to Rachel Odoro who has over sixteen years of midwifery practice and is currently the Assistant Chief Nurse at Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH). She shares the highs and lows of her career and offers crucial perspectives on this year’s theme Midwives, Mothers and Families: Partners for Life!

What inspired you to be a midwife?

If a midwife has the passion for midwifery and is empathetic, all they require are the capabilities, skills and competencies and they can perform in the utmost. Delivering quality care for the mother and her family is what matters most.

I developed my passion while I was still young in my career as a community health worker. I really love the mother and the child and it saddens me that so many mothers are dying from mostly preventable maternal-child related causes. I believe that midwives and midwifery skills are very important for preventing maternal, neonatal deaths, stillbirths and birth related complications. My experience has taught me that in order to increase the survival rates during birth, midwives require adequate support, proper infrastructure and up-to-date training.

What makes you proud of being a midwife?

There is something special about providing care for a mother during the journey of pregnancy and childbirth. Being a midwife is not only about clinical skills but being empathetic, passionate, respectful, culturally sensitive to a woman’s needs during pregnancy. I recall some of my trying moments at Pumwani Maternity Hospital, one of the largest maternity hospitals in the country, where we would handle up to 100 mothers delivering within 24 hours. These numbers would go up during the nights when up to 60 mothers would deliver. Needless to say that midwives do not only deliver babies, they significantly contribute to women’s sexual and reproductive health, through the prevention of unwanted pregnancies, pre- and post-natal care and health education. Midwifery is also equally important for newborns during the critical first few weeks of life.

What change do midwives make in the community?

Midwives are essential in the healthcare workforce. A mother who is delivering a baby is not something that can wait. Well-trained, well-equipped, well-supported and regulated midwives working in communities are uniquely positioned to save so many lives in their communities. Most maternal deaths are preventable as the health-care solutions to prevent or manage birth-related complications are well known.

However, we have to overcome certain challenges in order to work better with communities. More specifically, strengthening interpersonal relationships with mothers by improving attitude and practices when they seek care and working with Traditional Birth Attendants (TBA) to avoid mismanagement of mother and child. Other factors that prevent women from seeking or receiving care during pregnancy or childbirth include poverty, distance to health unit, lack of information, inadequate services and cultural practices. To improve maternal health outcomes, barriers that limit access to quality maternal health services must be identified and addressed at all levels of the health system.

The Lancet maternal health series highlights that we will require more than 18 million additional health workers to meet targets set out in the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. The series further highlights that Kenya is among the countries that has some of the lowest densities of midwives and obstetricians (WHO recommended one skilled birth attendant for every 175 pregnancies). What kind of partnerships are vital to support the work that you do?

  1. Families – Women need access to antenatal care in pregnancy, skilled care during childbirth, and care and support in the weeks after childbirth. This support can be provided by families or the community. Community support groups are able to identify expectant mothers, share their experience and intervene for example by providing transport during emergencies. telecommunication, transport during emergencies etc. The midwife in this case needs to form strong partnerships with the community so that emergencies can be referred on time
  2. Governments – To improve transport and telecommunication infrastructure. These would include proper road networks to health units as well availability of ambulances. The devolved system of governance in Kenya has enabled health units to be built in remote areas but a lot more still remains to be done. There is still a lot of congestion in the labor wards as a result of the free provision of maternal and child health care by government but our role is to reassure them that they will receive the highest form of care.
  3. Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) – NGOs can partner with midwives to build competency and ensure that they are well-trained and well-supported especially for midwives working in low-resource settings. I have benefited from several trainings including by PRONTO International . There is no one who doesn’t require training. If I don’t read my books and update myself on the latest practices, I will decay.

We conclude this interview with a powerful reflection by Cathy Moore (in Sisters Singing). To all the Midwives at the frontlines, making motherhood safe – we love you, we appreciate you and we cherish you. Happy International Day of the Midwife.

“…As we ready ourselves to accept new life into our hands,
Let us be reminded of our place in the dance of creation.
Let us be protectors of courage.
Let us be observers of beauty.
Let us be guardians of the passage.
Let us be witnesses to the unfolding…”

The FGM Conversation has to Change

It’s been roughly 100 days since 2017 began. Reflecting on the past year’s campaigns against FGM and early marriages, it is true that all who are involved have come a long way. There have been moments where the campaign may have faltered and made missteps – but we’ve also seen some significant progress.

However, in the course of writing and campaigning, as well as visiting various communities across the country where FGM is practiced, I can attest that activists are increasingly encountering subtle resistance.

A revisionist movement is slowly but surely pushing back, challenging some of reasons advanced in campaigns against FGM as well as approaches that do not seem not to fit with their local context. As such, the conversation at the global and national level is not making much needed impact at the community level.

How is this possible, given the resources that are being channeled and renewed vigor among activists? To illustrate this, sometime in 2016 during a Rugby 7s event dubbed #EndFGMmaasai in Kajiado, Kenya, a group of elite young men from universities – The Maasai Students Association – revealed to us that they still encourage and uphold the practice of FGM. They stated that they nonetheless encourage girls to continue with school after the practice. Many activists would refute this, as FGM among the Maasai is believed to prepare a woman mentally for marriage; and there is very little chance that the girl will pursue education after the cut.

In Garissa (Northern Kenya), the prevalence stands at 97%. Here the challenge relates to the belief that FGM affects child births. During community conversations, I have heard many women dispute the health effects of the practice, citing that they have actually given birth to many children despite the cut. One woman confessed that she underwent type 3 of FGM (infibulation) and she prides in the birth of her 10 children. According to Kenneth Odary of Research Triangle Africa (RTA), such sentiments, coupled with official statistics that reveal that there is indeed a higher birth rate and population growth among FGM- practicing communities, diminish the credibility of some long held facts on the dangers of FGM.

These are but a few examples of the subtle resistance and revisionist statements that activists grapple with while in the field. Such is the dilemma, which has led to suggestions for a holistic approach – which not only tackles the known health and social-cultural issues, but also frames them within the broader socioeconomic and political context.

For instance, recently there was a voter registration exercise that took place in Kenya and various political factions were competing for votes. Unknown to some of these groups is that only a third of women – who currently comprise over half the population of Kenya – are registered to vote. This is largely as a result of many women lacking the crucial national identity card, as result of being forced into early marriages common with girls who have undergone FGM and having dropped out of school.

According to Kenneth Odary, this implies that in Kenya’s tribal- driven politics, communities practicing FGM are deprived of the critical numbers needed to influence decisions and bargain for power and resources at the national level. Besides, given their low level of education attainment, such women may be unable to countenance the importance of voting as their democratic right enshrined in our constitution even upon attaining the age of maturity.

Politics aside, women’s pursuit of their socio-economic rights is largely hampered as a result of these harmful cultural practices of FGM and early marriages. In Kenya, without a national identity card, a woman can be deprived of the opportunity to access affirmative action funds made available by government.

These examples are a fraction of the realities that women face at the community level that can be generated to re-energize the anti-FGM crusade and make it more holistic. Funding for activities need to strategically shift from arguments about why FGM is wrong to examining the broader socio economic and political impact of this practice.

Cover photo credit: Les Anderson 

Meet Felogene Anumo – Girls’ Globe Blogger from Kenya

Born and raised in Kenya, Felogene Anumo is a Pan Africanist and young feminist activist who is passionate about gender, racial and social justice with over eight years of experience in advancing gender equality through grassroots and online activism, research and capacity building of young feminists and women activists.

Felogene’s roots in the feminist movement were planted at the University of Nairobi where she served as the Women Students Chairperson across the 7 campuses. During her tenure, she launched the first Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights Week and a pioneer magazine on young women’s and girls’ issues dubbed AlphaDiva. In 2011, she was awarded Young Woman Achiever by the students’ association.

With a passion for sexual and reproductive health and rights, youth leadership and combating violence against women and girls, Felogene advocates nationally, regionally and globally for recognition of women’s and girls’ human rights. Most importantly, Felogene believes that key contributions, lived experiences, perspectives, politics, needs and voices of young women and girls need to be heard and reflected in policies, programs and debates affecting them.

Felogene’s experience includes assessing gender and youth issues in legislation, policy and programmes, monitoring and evaluation and has done impact assessments of donor funded projects and programmes. She has authored the “Feminist Leadership and Development Curriculum for Adolescent Girls” and co-authored the, “Report on the Status of Ratification on the Rights of women in Africa.” She is a blogger with Girls Globe’ and a member of the African Youth Task Force on Post 2015 Development. She is currently managing the Young Feminist Activism Program at the Association for Women Rights in Development (AWID).

Connect with Felogene on Twitter @felogene!

Featured image photo credit: Zayira Ray / Girls’ Globe.

Video credit: Creative Director // Kimberly Graf, Film Director // Tiffany Jackman, Director of Photography / Editing // Skyler Whitehead, Whirlwind Productions LLC