by Joyce J. Wangui
Though the name Lilian Mogiti Nyandoro may not mean much to those in Nairobi where she is based, in a small village in Kimana, Oloitoktok District her name speaks volumes. She has demystified the female gender. She has helped local women regain their dignity and brings smiles to their faces.
In this region, women had always succumbed to male patriarchy. The practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) had been an accepted norm, but not anymore. Lilian has ensured that men and women alike are slowly abandoning the barbaric act. Girls in the area praise the anti-FGM crusader and her organization for rescuing them from the knife. As the world marked the International Day of Zero Tolerance to FGM on February 6, an elated group of Maasai women could not hide their appreciation for this unsung heroine.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the practice of FGM includes all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. FGM is linked to increased complications in childbirth and even maternal deaths. Other side effects include severe pain, hemorrhage, tetanus, infection, infertility, cysts and abscesses, urinary incontinence, and psychological and sexual problems. Since the early 1990s, FGM has gained recognition as a health and human rights issue.
In Oloitoktok, the practice is commonplace. The area is predominantly inhabited by the Maasai tribe, a people internationally known for their strong sense of culture. Save for a few, the Maasai has defied all forms of modern influence, including the need for basic health education. FGM is common practice and locals have sadly accepted it as a way of life. Maasai men breathe patriarchy with women believing that an uncircumcised girl is ‘dirty’ and not fit for marriage, and despite the health hazards, underage girls face the knife in order to acquire some form of identity in the community. The act is as traumatic as it is painful.
But all is not gloom. One woman’s quest to liberate women from the forces of doom is slowly bearing fruit. Lilian believes that one day all defiant Maasai will abandon the age-old custom. And after the historic anti-FGM bill was signed into law by Kenya’s President in October last year, they have no choice. The law reads in part that “Anyone caught circumcising a girl will from now henceforth be considered a criminal. Should the girl die from this act, mainly from bleeding, [the culprit] will be considered a murderer and is liable to life imprisonment.”
Through her organization ABANTU for Development, a local NGO that promotes gender equality in marginalized communities, Lilian focuses on gender and governance issues and ensures that women embrace leadership from community to national levels. She talks to Maasai women in such a manner that they understand the role of leadership and the positive impact it will have in their own transformation. She has gone out of her way to make sure that illiterate women understand the new constitution.
“When you are dealing with women who have never stepped in a classroom, you have to be very humble and not chest-thump,” says Lilian, who admits that it has been an uphill task to train women, a great percentage of whom are illiterate. But her passion for women’s empowerment helps her to be patient with them.
I accompanied her team to Kimana where she was conducting a workshop on women in governance. Women walk as far as 30 kilometers to get a taste of her training. Since ABANTU’s presence in the area in March 2009, locals have been very receptive. Lilian has taken them through the new constitution, focusing on the clauses that call for the rights of women.
“At last somebody has heard our plight. Our girls can now go to school and run away from FGM,” says Esther Apale, one of the trainees. She believes that Maasai women are able to identify with Lilian not only because she is a woman, but also because she understands their needs.
Apale, who heads an NGO that rescues girls from FGM, shares that the local community has come to understand the dangers of the act and has since embraced change. “You know, with Lilian, she has been able to penetrate through to our men and implore them to stop the vice.”
Mary Kahingo, the only female Assistant Chief in the area, describes Lilian as a humble and charismatic woman. “Somehow, she is able to pull the crowd, including men.” In the Maasai culture, it is unheard of for a woman to address men. “Lilian talks to men with ease and they are able to implement what they learn.” This, however, has not been a walk in the park and getting to that point was frustrating.
“When I started training men on the need to embrace women’s empowerment and to stop FGM, I was not married and this did not auger well with them,” Lilian says adding that Maasai men regard unmarried women with a lot of disrespect.
“I had to humble myself and at the same time be wise. I told them the negative effects associated with the ‘female cut’ not only for the girl child but also for the man she is forced to marry.”
She pleaded with Maasai men to stop seeing their women as useless and engage them in leadership forums.
Lilian tells me that the gender and good governance unit of ABANTU is where her heart is at. “I feel at home under this program. I go to the field, access issues, and train women on leadership and development, and at the end of it all, I see the results.”
Though the road to women’s emancipation in the area has been rough, she rejoices that tremendous changes are taking place and women are beginning to see their worth in the community. Many Maasai women are gearing up for the forthcoming general elections, as they now fully understand the need to be leaders.
Why Oloitoktok? “This is where retrogressive cultural traditions like FGM and early marriages are commonplace,” Lilian says. The belief stems from a cultural background where men call the shots, even in matters that directly involve women.
In Maasai culture, it is unthinkable for a woman to address men, let alone look them in the eye. Lilian says she had to deal with male opinion leaders first in order to get to women. She admits that it takes a thick skin and concrete strategies when dealing with a people who do everything pegged on culture. Even the locals marvel at how one woman, with the help of her organization, could eventually trounce the rigid cultural norms and pave the way for women’s liberty.
Joseph Komite, a community sensitizer hired by ABANTU to champion the organisation’s mission in the area, lauds ABANTU for transforming Maasai women. “Women need to be pushed, not just mobilized.” He says that as a Maasai man, he doesn’t need to stay mired in his culture and inhibit women’s empowerment, and, “If anything I am a top campaigner of anti-FGM, something which my peers find weird.”
Henry Kanai, chairman of a cattle group ranch in the area, laughs out loud when I ask him if he would have his daughters circumcised. “All my daughters are educated and none have gone through the cut,” he boasts. He says the locals’ interaction with Lilian has opened them up to accepting new ideas.
Lilian, a law graduate from Moi University, knew her passion lay in the civil society domain. She says in the NGO world, it is more about giving than receiving. She has given her time and energy to villagers who never knew that circumcising girls was not only a crime but also hazardous. Lilian has vowed to continue with her fight to liberate women from cultural and traditional belief systems that are inimical to the sexual and reproductive rights of women.
What keeps Lilian going is seeing instant results. “I feel content when I see Maasai women empowering their girls and rescuing them from FGM.” In a short period, she says, local women have become leaders.
About the Author:
Joyce J. Wangui is a freelance journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya and writes for various online media agencies. She earned a Diploma in Mass Communication in 2002, and started her media career in Rwanda in early 2003 where she worked as a senior political reporter for The New Times, a state-owned English newspaper. Joyce is an active member of Highway Africa; an annual gathering of African journalists in South Africa and the Deutsche Welle Global Media forum held in Bonn, Germany. She is currently pursuing a one-year correspondence degree in International Journalism.