Part two of our interview with midwife and Beyond FGM founder, Cathleen Holland.
On a tiny budget, you were able to convince and educate an entire community. You helped to create “an alternative rite of passage” for young girls in Pokot, and therefore save many girls the fate of FGM. Please tell us how you managed to do this, where did you begin?
I began by inviting 2 Kenyan friends of mine,( both Kenya-trained nurse/midwives) to come to the UK for an educational/cultural visit as a means of empowering them to tackle this problem. We met FGM specialist midwives and doctors inLondonandLiverpoolas well as women’s advocacy groups. Once back in Pokot we then worked together to reach firstly the traditional birth attendants (TBAs/circumcisers as they are major stakeholders in the tradition since it is their livelihood). We held meetings and workshops with them. Speakers included chiefs. Everything was conducted in the Pokot language and the vast majority of attendees were Pokot. At the workshops the TBAs vowed to renounce the practice altogether. From amongst this group we formed the self help group, “Kepsteno Rotwo” (abandon the knife). It was this group who planned and organised an “Alternative Rite of Passage” ceremony with 175 girls. They travelled to remote areas recruiting girls and talking to parents.
The Guardian film “Abandon the knife” documents this amazing turnaround. It features two young, brave girls, Nancy and Gertrude who refuse to be cut and demand to be educated like their brothers. Their courage in standing up to their fathers and demanding equal rights to education is awe-inspiring. How central to the problem of FGM is a young girl not receiving an education?
In a word, very! As soon as a girl is circumcised she is married and immediately drops out of school. In most remote areas, girls of around 14 years and above will not be in school. Of course school fees are another factor as rural people are very often poverty- stricken and marginalised so the temptation to marry off your daughter and receive dowry is huge.
What can people do worldwide to help end FGM?
I think awareness-raising is vital. It’s easy to think that isn’t really helping but personal experience tells me otherwise. I feel very strongly that the world is waking up to FGM and we are beginning to see the end of it. I know people in Pokot are ready for change, especially the youth. With communication becoming ever more sophisticated and speedier, otherwise neglected communities can be helped to overcome these outmoded harmful, traditional practices.
We must lobby our governments, the larger UN bodies such as UNFPA and UNICEF to tackle this most urgent human child rights abuse. This is no small problem. By official WHO figures, around 6, 000 girls worldwide are subjected to this torture every day, of whom 200 may die as a result. Give money to projects that are genuinely bringing about change, especially grassroots ones. Organise a support group in your own locality and fundraise. Be proactive.
What are the next steps for Beyond FGM? What can we expect to see you from in the future?
We are planning another “alternative” ceremony in December this year, hopefully with more girls in at least 3 other areas of the wider Pokot district. We will continue with these ceremonies until FGM is history. We will continue to work with TBAs to improve childbirth practices, especially in remote areas so that childbirth becomes the safe, dignified and fulfilling experience that it ought to be for all the women of the world. ( 1 mother dies in childbirth every single minute of every single day somewhere in the world from mostly easily preventable causes.)