Noonkera Women and Family Support Group (NWFSG) with the help and support of Sharyn Dowd and 16 of her friends from Atlanta Georgia embarked on a pioneering mission of offering an Alternative Rite of Passage (ARP) seminar and ceremony in Komolion Pokot district. ARP is an incitation practice that is performed for girls as an alternative to Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). The challenge of eliminating FGM in a culture that sees it as a rite of passage is challenging but the risks are higher. Female circumcision has serious health consequences: it can cause death and increases the risk of blood poisoning, fistula, and difficulties during child birth, haemorrhage, urinary retention, chronic pelvic infection, increased risk of HIV among many other long term and short term complications. Circumcision in the Pokot culture marks the transition from girlhood to womanhood, so in order to encourage people to move away from FGM it is important to develop an alternative rite of passage, in which the girls are taken through civic, and health education, counselling and guidance. They are made aware of the dangers of FGM and importance of education as opposed to early marriages. At the end of the programme the girls are presented with beautiful head gears by their mother which signify that they have undergone initiation but without the cut.
This idea was first discussed by Sharyn and Zippy in June 2016 during a visit to Kenya organized by Randall and Brenda Bradley (Baylor University Texas). Sharyn inquired from Zippy what was being offered as an alternative to FGM to the Pokot girls in Komolion. Zippy mentioned that because of logistics, finances and lack civic education nothing was available as an alternative to the girls. Sharyn requested Zippy to look into all of the above mentioned challenges and get back to her and she would see what help and support she could offer.
In August Zippy and Daniel (Noonkera Women and Family Support Group) took a trip to Pokot Komolion as it was important to involve the Komolion community, social services and concerned government officials in this initiative. It was the first of four trips they would make to Pokot. It was vital to involve all of the above mentioned because in order to initiate change they all had to play a role and help raise awareness in the dangers of this harmful cultural practice of FGM. At the community level those involved included Mama Sheila (parent to one of the 12 girls supported by NWFSG) and the head teacher Komolion Primary School Mr Joash. At the local government administrations level the local area chief, the District Officer (DO) and the County Assembly Representative. In matters involving children’s issues social services was represented by the children’s officer Mr Bett, volunteer children’s officer Joan and local women and children’s rights representative Mary.
The ceremony was set to be held from 5th to 7th December at Komolion primary school. This was also the best time as schools had closed and many girls were available to attend. It is also important to mention that this is when the FGM incitation ceremonies take place. The girls would have two days of training with the third day being the graduation ceremony.
Four facilitators would take the girls through the training. They included Mary – women and children representative who covered issues pertaining to children’s rights, survival rights, early marriages, school dropout, sexual abuse, harmful cultural practices, right to expression, right to parental love and care, children assembly (African charter 2001) and policies pertaining to children’s rights. Joan the volunteer children’s officer covered Child protection acts in the Kenyan constitution, FGM, good health, protection by parents, protection of self – set your mind and focus on your goals. In case of forced FGM report to women of the community, chief, DO and look out for one another (be your sister’s keeper). Joash the head teacher covered matters relating to Education which included importance and benefits of education, respect for development and social equality, National development which foster’s a sense of national unity. The duty and responsibility of every child regardless of gender must play a role in nation building. Grace the nurse touched on matter concerning reproductive health, human body and changes during adolescence, abstaining from sex, proper hygiene, STDs, infections and effects of HIV, school drop and highlighted that respect should go hand in hand with child protection. Reson focused on guidance and counselling educating the girls on the importance of self-esteem, self-respect, self- awareness, respect, time management and setting goals for their future. Zippy and Daniel gave motivating and inspiring talks to the girls encouraging them to make the most of the opportunity that has been accorded to them and become the change they wish to see in their community. Daniel had a special session with the men and boys of the community for they play a major role when it came to enforcing FGM. He sensitized them on the role they played on prolonging FGM and how they could be agents of change and the benefits it would bring to the community.
The graduation ceremony was very well attended by the local community, social services, members of the local administration and local role models who included Joan, Mary and Grace former students at Komolion Primary. They had succeeded in their chosen fields because of saying no to FGM and early marriage. These three ladies were such an inspiration and motivating factor to the girls as they were able to see that they too can aspire and succeed in whatever they set their minds on.
The ceremony was a success this was evident from the huge turn out and feedback from the local community and government representative’s. These are the essential pillars that MUST be involved in the eradication of FGM. FGM is illegal in Kenya, but it is a community decision, so we engage with everyone at all levels in the community – from circumcisers, to men, young boys, to parents and girls. We know that if we can change everybody’s mind then we will end this practice. This symbolic ceremony was a success because we developed it in partnership with members of the community.
Our message is that we are encouraging people to change one part of the Pokot culture, but not give up all of what makes them proud to be Pokots. They can do away with this harmful cultural practice (FGM) but still maintain their beautiful culture and identity!
All this would NOT have been possible with the financial support from Sharyn Dowd and her 16 friends! We are very grateful for the support financially and emotionally that has been shown through words and deeds. We are also very grateful to Duncan, Milly and Jeff who accompanied us to Pokot for the 4 days we were there. Their professional and friendly services offered in terms of media coverage of the event were truly appreciated. To Randall and Brenda thank you for checking up on us every step of the way, your encouraging emails and phone calls were something to look forward to.
With this first Alternative Rites Passage done, we look forward to this being an annual event that will finally bring about the eradication of FGM, and bring forth development socially, academically and financially to the community of Komolion – Pokot!