It’s August - and it’s school holidays in Kenya. But for the 107 members of the Kongelai Women’s Network, it’s anything but a time to relax. The summer is known as the “cutting season”, so these women are on high alert for reports of girls being forced to have female genital mutilation (FGM) in their villages, and are ready to welcome those fleeing their homes in fear of the brutal procedure.
Standing inside her office – a sturdy mud hut, with anti-FGM banners, and flow-diagrams drawn on flip-chart paper pinned on the walls - Susan Krop, 38, the dedicated chairwoman of the women’s network explains: “There are two things that prompt a girl to run away from home: the risk of FGM and the risk of early forced marriage. Once those girls reach our office we co-ordinate ourselves and call the administration.
There are two things that prompt a girl to run away from home: the risk of FGM and the risk of early forced marriage.
“If their parents find them with us, it becomes a difficult, confrontational issue. They will want to take her back. They are often angry because you are blocking them from getting the dowry.”
In Kongelai, a rural area near the Ugandan border, she explains that FGM is not only seen as a prerequisite for marriage, it is also linked to bride price: a father will receive more cows as his daughter's dowry if she's been cut. It makes combatting FGM a huge challenge.
Susan continues: “We usually take that opportunity to tell parents about the law and discuss that FGM is illegal. If they are convinced, they usually leave the girl with us so she can stay at school. Then the burden of looking after her falls on the women in the network.”
Women take in girls at risk of FGM
After spending their first nights in basic shacks built and guarded by the local women, many of the girls are placed in a nearby ActionAid-funded safe house where the network supports the girls, and where they can go to school. But with little room to spare, and when schools close for holidays, the women must take the girls in themselves. Coming from poor families, and with children of their own, this can be a strain.
The network now have their sights set on building a fully-functioning community safe centre, where girls can stay all year long. “Having a safe centre will help to reduce the number of FGM cases. And once the girls are here, it will be easy for them to access education."
Changing minds, for the long term
But this, Susan explains, is only the first step. The network’s main focus is persuading parents and communities that this brutal practice must end. Using their vast local knowledge and contacts, the women have worked carefully and tactfully with people from rural areas, to share examples of when FGM has gone wrong, how it can cause problems during childbirth – and worse.
Having a safe centre will help to reduce the number of FGM cases.
They’ve often faced opposition from husbands and community members who feel they are upending thousand-year-old traditions. That’s why the women work collectively.
“Because if we do it as individuals, they’ll target you as an individual,” said Susan. “We prefer addressing the issue as a group.”
Another challenge is geography. Without their own cars or public transport, it takes time and money, such as the fare for the motorbike ride, to cross miles of rocky, unpaved roads to reach remote villages.
FGM rates are falling - but more work needs to be done
Despite this, together with ActionAid and co-operation with the local authorities, they’ve made clear progress: rates of FGM have dropped dramatically in the local area.
“Women now speak in public meetings. In the past they would keep quiet about it. Now more girls are going to school and completing their education.” Susan adds: “But this doesn’t mean FGM has stopped. It is being practiced in other areas. There is still more work for us.”
Why the girls need a new centre
The network meet to discuss the latest cases and tactics inside a temporary training room, a mud structure with a tin roof. It's built on land they bought themselves after training from ActionAid in business and finance last year.
Women now speak in public meetings. In the past they would keep quiet about it.
The new community safe centre will be built on this land too, providing them with a permanent base to continue their campaigning work. As well as funding the centre, ActionAid will help build a water pipeline, enabling the women to plant crops which they can sell for profit and sustain their work.
But with all the right structures in place, it is really down to the women to carry out this important work. Susan knows that this will never be a problem.
“I am proud of the women’s commitment because whenever I call them for a meeting, they come,” said Susan. “They use their own money, they come on foot from long distances and they don’t even ask for money back. They are committed to their work so it’s easy for me to lead them.”
Where does her passion for this work comes from? “After FGM, I dropped out of school and was married off at a tender age. I want to ensure young girls don’t go through what I went through.”
A donation from you will help to build new community safe centres for girls at risk of FGM, and where women’s groups can stamp out FGM, for good. Please donate today.
Photo credits: Ashley Hamer/ActionAid.