“I heard things I could not imagine”: a Kenyan Activist Reveals How He Became a Voice Against FGM

As female genital mutilation (FGM) continues to claim lives of women around the world, and at the onset of the season of “vacation cutting” that puts girls in the West at increased risk of being cut, amplifying voices of men who advocate against this inexcusable practice is more important than ever. We asked Tony Mwebia, a young Kenyan activist to share with us his journey to becoming one of these voices. Read below his views on what it takes to end FGM.

 

How did you start advocating against FGM? 

Four years ago I had no idea what Female Genital Mutilation was. After completing my bachelors’ degree in Social Work from the University of Nairobi in December 2011, I was lucky to get a contract job working with youths. The contract though, was for one year and it was over before I even realized I was working.

After staying at home for some days I decided to take up volunteer work with HIAS Refugee Trust of Kenya. Two months down the line working with urban refugees there was a vacancy for a temporary project assistant in the field of FGM. This was a pilot project funded by UNHCR and it was supposed to go for 3 months. I must admit until this time I had very little knowhow on FGM.

The position required me to know at least the basics about FGM and especially Kenyan laws on the same. This acted as motivation and within no time I found myself reading extensively on FGM hence gaining knowledge. We held several dialogues and sensitization meetings within Nairobi; I was able to meet refugees from Rwanda, Ethiopia and Somalia who shared their different stories and experiences with FGM. Some of the stories were really touching and they made me want to learn more and more about FGM. I heard things that I could not imagine.

We had doctors and midwives sharing their experiences in the labor wards especially with women that had undergone infibulations. Men openly spoke about how they lost their loved ones as a result of complications during birth, women shared on how they lost their daughters to excessive bleeding during the cut and the pain that they had to endure every time they had sex. The stories completely changed my heart and I swore to try the little I could to end this menace.

Luckily after completing this contract I got a job with another organization and I was posted to Kuria, Migori County in Kenya. In Kuria the rate of prevalence of FGM is at 96%. Here I came face to face with FGM being practiced. I had never seen people dance and sing publicly while escorting girls to undergo the cut. I have been able to conduct several dialogues and community meetings here in Kuria and currently we are experiencing gradual change on how the community perceives FGM. I thank God I have been able to bring change to some community members.

I have worked in Kuria since 2013 to date and will continue my work here until FGM ends.

 

How have other men reacted to your work? What does the support of men and women mean to you? How can their voices and actions be amplified by people who are not directly affected by FGM?

I must admit the reactions have been different from different sections of the society. To some men and women I am a hero for addressing this pertinent issue; to others I am a fool and they wonder why I should address this issue after all I don’t have a vagina. Well the positive support is always welcome and the negative voice is always encouraged to change and be voice of reason through community dialogues and sensitization. Support of men and women means FGM is going to end gradually, hence the more the support the better the outcome.

The fight against FGM is a community affair and it can’t be won by an individual alone. Conducting community dialogues and sensitizations aimed at changing community attitudes and perception on FGM requires resources. Rescuing girls from the cut also require resources. Educating the girls is also key in ensuring FGM comes to an end. Poverty eradication by empowering community members also cannot be ignored. Hence to amplify the voices of men and women against FGM we need to look on how to come in and improve the sectors mentioned by investing resources.

 

You are also a strong voice against child marriage. Tell us how child marriage and FGM are connected in Kenya/Africa.

Without fear I can state the main reason as to why girls undergo FGM is to increase their marriageability. In most communities where FGM is practiced you will find out FGM goes hand in hand with child marriages. FGM is hence a prerequisite for child marriage. Stopping FGM will eventually go a long way in reducing child marriages. I therefore urge the organizations working to end child marriages to consider fighting FGM as it is one of the contributing factors.

 

What is the main role of men (fathers, brothers, husbands, etc.) in the movement to stop FGM? 

One man told me; “Men are the ‘end consumers of women’ whether circumcised or uncircumcised”. Well, this got me thinking, “so after all men can play a greater role in the fight against Female Genital Mutilation”. Assuming all men said no to FGM today, trust me the fight will be over once and for all. Most African societies are patriarchal in nature and men are the final decision makers.

FGM is imposed on girls to make it possible for them to:

  • secure spouses
  • please men
  • increase value of dowry (paid by men)
  • initiate them to adulthood hence marriage
  • preserve virginity (for men)

The above mentioned are just but a few reasons, and they all revolve around sex and marriage. This means that men have a direct role in perpetuation of FGM. To make progress in this fight, NGOs and Government institutions should encourage more men to join this fight with the aim of reversing their mindset.

In most cases you will find out that girls and women are sensitized on the dangers of FGM and men (especially youths) are left behind. If we leave out the young men in this fight, how do we guarantee the generational change that we so much yearn for?

It’s my belief that if we target men and especially youths in the community dialogues and sensitization, we are guaranteed to achieve sustainability in this fight. Men should therefore guard their sisters, mothers, cousins, girlfriends and all women against FGM.

 

What have been the biggest challenges in this mission and how have you fought back?

Africans are known to preserve their culture and they hold dearly to their cultures. This has been the biggest challenge in dealing with FGM since most of the society members believe it’s their cultural practice and should be guarded and preserved.

Community dialogues and sensitization have been the best tool for addressing this. By dialoging with the community members they are able to slowly learn that some of the cultural practices like FGM are harmful and have no benefits at all but harm.

 

Currently, an estimated half a million women and girls are at risk of FGM in the US. While there are federal laws against FGM, 26 states have not criminalized the practice. What is your advice to men and women fighting against FGM in the US?

Laws alone cannot end FGM. It requires more than laws to end this menace. Laws are just guidelines. It’s important that the 26 states remaining pass laws illegalizing FGM, but massive community dialogue and sensitization will still be required to change the peoples’ perception and attitude towards the practice.

 

 

Read our previous posts about FGM:

Five Myths About Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)

The Time for Change is Now: You Can Make a Difference in the Fight Against FGM in the US

Women Forced to Undergo FGM Find Strength to Break the Silence

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