22.02.2024 Tuulia Perttula

“If a woman can speak, she cannot be harmed.”  

Reading time: 6 min

Kenialainen opettaja Esther Atoni seisoo vehreällä koulun pihalla

Teachers are doing important work against female genital mutilation. Esther Atoni works in Kisii, Kenya, to eradicate this violent tradition.

Female genital mutilation is common in the International Solidarity Foundation’s working area in Kisii, Kenya. The role of schools and teachers in eradicating this tradition is significant. 

“If a woman can speak, she cannot be harmed,” says teacher Esther Atoni, who works with students aged 7-9 in Kisii County, Kenya. The school is unique in that it collaborates with ISF’s partner, the Center for Community Mobilization and Empowerment (CECOME). CECOME provides training on the harmful effects of female genital mutilation and actively works against violence against women. 

Atoni has noticed that the role of teachers in this work is significant. Through education, women’s voices become stronger and thus they are able to say no to mutilation. 

Engagement in the fight against mutilation  

Female genital mutilation is a blatant violation of human rights, which girls are subjected to because they are girls. Female genital mutilation involves the removal of parts of a woman’s genitals through cutting. There is no medical or religious basis for this harmful tradition; the reasons behind it lie in deeply rooted habits. 

Many actors, such as the women-led CECOME, have networked and engaged in work to eliminate misconceptions surrounding mutilation. 

Mutilation leads to early marriage  

When discussing mutilation, it is important to keep in mind that it is not done with malicious intent, but rather for the protection of the girl’s future. Mutilation serves as a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood. It is also seen as guaranteeing a girl’s virginity, which is considered a prerequisite for marriage. Marriage is a guarantee of economic security for girls and mutilation often leads to early marriages. 

Mutilation is a dangerous and violent procedure that causes complications such as bleeding, difficulties with urination, infections, and serious psychological symptoms. In the worst cases, mutilation leads to death – globally estimated at 44,000 deaths per year. 

“We are ready to work, we really work!”

These words echo from Atoni as she assures that she is ready to work with her support team. The employees trained by CECOME are committed to emotionally challenging work. Atoni states that she is good at her job and is capable of convincing parents to spare their children from mutilation. 

In Kenya, parents have great respect for teachers and trust their word. When asked, Atoni also responds that she is sure that no one has been secretly mutilated recently, as she would know from the students’ absences. She also trusts parents to be honest. 

Safe camps as an alternative to mutilation  

An Alternative Rite of Passage (ARP) is, as the name suggests, an alternative to the traditional rite of passage from childhood to adulthood. It is a method developed by NGOs and is often carried out in a safe camp. Every year, about ten girls at risk of mutilation get the opportunity to join Atoni’s school. 

During their time at the safe camp, girls are protected from mutilation and their parents receive valuable information about the dangers of mutilation. The alternative rite of passage preserves positive aspects of the tradition, such as dancing, singing, and celebrating the girl’s growth, while eliminating the act of mutilation. Girls’ bodily integrity is safeguarded. 

Addressing root causes through dialogue  

The rite of passage is usually organized during school holidays, when the threat of mutilation is highest. During the holidays, it is possible to recover from the prohibited procedure without teachers and the community finding out. The alternative, safe camp culminates in a public ceremony, where participants receive Ambassador of Change certificates and parents, village elders, and other community leaders declare their commitment to sparing their children from mutilation. 

The discussions held at the safe camp involve all community members – boys, girls, parents, authorities, and community leaders. Atoni and her colleagues convince parents to reject mutilation through dialogue. Discussions among parents are also important, as cultural change happens at the community level. 

Changing attitudes is done one conversation at a time, one encounter at a time, addressing root causes. However, the issue is sensitive. In what tone and in what settings should we have these conversations? Atoni sees no reason for whispers, but instead believes the conversations should be held boldly and in public spaces. Only by doing this can taboos be broken and the stigma surrounding mutilation (and, conversely, non-mutilation) be dispelled. 

The voices of girls and women must be heard. Atoni states that “if a woman can speak, she cannot be harmed.” 

Information, safety, and rights

After attending the safe camp, girls and their families learn about the dangers of mutilation and its alternatives, strengthening their agency. Girls who avoid mutilation are likely to spare their own children from it as well, and thus, change happens – slowly but surely. 

At first, talking about mutilation with children was challenging for Atoni as the topic embarrassed them. Now, the children who participate in Atoni’s club activities and have attended the safe camp sing loudly in the background of the interview, “these are my private parts, no one should touch them.” 

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