Alternative Rite of Passage – empowering young girls on the subject of FGM

Meru Women’s Garden Project is a collaboration between Soroptimist International Great Britain and Ireland (SIGBI), Child.org and the women of Meru.

Chosen as the SIGBI Federation project for 2016-2019, SIGBI Clubs are united in raising funds in support of some the poorest women-led households in Kenya.

As part of the collaboration, ‘Alternative Rite of Passage: Girls need education, NOT circumcision’ was organised by The Community Initiative for rural development (CIFORD), and funded by Soroptimist International of Great Britain and Ireland. Alternative Rite of Passage (ARP) weekend seminars, sought to empower young women on the subject of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).

CIFORD Kenya which is run by Margaret Ikiara, an SI Meru member, ran Alternative Rite of Passage (ARP) seminars aimed at teenagers under pressure from peers and the community to undergo FGM. The week or weekend away – an ‘alternative rite of passage’ educated young women on the harm of the procedure, whilst teaching them the value of their bodies and to make good choices. The seminar also focused on the importance of education and on delaying other societal pressures such as marriage.

Over 100 girls have so far attended two seminars held this year, with a further event planned for this month. Held at the CIFORD centre in Meru, the attendees were chosen for their perceived vulnerability to FGM, a practice illegal in Kenya. This month’s ARP will also include 60 boys, and it is hoped that this will help inform and educate young men on the importance of girls being able to make informed decisions regarding FGM.

The educational sessions covered important social issues such as the repercussions of teenage pregnancy, early marriage, HIV/AIDS, drugs and substance abuse, as well as the short and long-term effects of FGM. The attendees were given an insight into the secret rituals of traditional female circumcision by a woman who had been circumcised herself, and by a retired nurse who had witnessed the traumatic medical consequences of the dangerous procedure throughout her career.

A big obstacle in the global fight against FGM is the reluctance to talk about the practice due to the taboo surrounding topics of a sexual nature. This silence allows the discriminatory practice to continue, making it harder for victims or potential victims to turn for help.  Scare-tactics are also commonly used against girls to ensure their cooperation in FGM and these were discussed during the seminars.

Image: Courtesy of Child.org – An Alternative Rite of Passage

A session was held on girls’ empowerment and self-realisation, emphasising the importance of internal strength and the role of women in society, particularly in a male-dominated culture. Girls identified characteristics of strong women, and emphasis was placed on understanding that these traits can be found within them all, and to embrace and nurture these strengths, and encourage other girls to do the same. This session was held in alignment with CIFORD’s belief that self-realisation is an integral element of education and that confidence and self-belief motivate lasting social change.

By giving both girls and boys the knowledge they need to make informed decisions to protect themselves and others, the ARP seminars aim to revolutionise a generation, helping them to pass down accurate information to their own children.

At the seminars, Child.org took the opportunity to conduct valuable research to gauge the girls’ understanding of important social issues surrounding FGM, and measure how effective an educational Alternative Rite of Passage was to their future protection against social exploitation.

Feedback has proved useful and informative. So far over the course of the two sessions: 59% of girls strongly agreed that female circumcision is a necessary part of growing up; however, by the end of the sessions, this figure had dramatically decreased to just 3%. When asked: if their parents wanted them to be circumcised, would they have the confidence to say no; 41% said yes, they would have the confidence to say no, prior to the session – this increased to 60% following the session.

Margaret received an unprecedented amount of donations of sanitary towels, books and pens from local members of the community that were handed out to the girls at their ARP graduation ceremony on the last day. They also received a t-shirt from CIFORD emblazoned with the message: ‘Girls need education, NOT circumcision’.

Speeches at the graduation ceremony emphasised the societal importance of what the girls had been taught over the course of the weekend. The local Chief, a pastor, parents and other guests were among the speakers who acknowledged their community responsibility to reach out to others who are vulnerable to harmful cultural traditions such as FGM.

Meru Women’s Garden Project meruwomen.org

Soroptimist International of Great Britain and Ireland https://sigbi.org/our-charities/meru-womens-garden-project-2016-2019/

CIFORD Kenya http://www.cifordkenya.org/

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