Domtila Chesang, 27, from West Pokot County, will stop at nothing until female circumcision, a vice that is deep-set in her Pokot community, is no more.
While studying for her Bachelor’s of Education degree at Moi University, Chesang desired to become a teacher to do her bit to reduce the high levels of illiteracy in her home county. Today, however, she has found new use for her teaching career: educating her community about the health and psychosocial implications of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).
During her teaching practice at a local school in 2013, she was perturbed by the high number of girls who were dropping out of school to get circumcised.
‘‘FGM was a social problem that required urgent intervention, and I felt I could do more with my education than just teach in a classroom setting. I decided to crusade against FGM, but it was only after my graduation in 2014 that I became fully involved in this campaign. I don’t intend to go back to class to teach because I am fully invested in what I am doing,’’ says Chesang of her activism.
She has witnessed, firsthand, the negative impact of FGM.
“I was 11 when my older cousin was cut. I remember her bleeding a lot and being in so much pain - she dropped out of school in Class Six to get married. My elder sister too went through the cut against her will.”
GOING AGAINST THE GRAIN TO IMPACT CHANGE
Chesang would also have gone through the ritual had she not stood up for herself.
"I managed to convince my parents to turn their backs on the practice before my younger sisters and I could go through it. It wasn’t until I joined university in 2010, however, that I began to openly speak about FGM in our community.”
Despite her young age and inferior position within her family, Chesang, who comes from a large polygamous family, participates in her family’s decision-making processes, a rare occurrence in this patriarchal community.
“I am lucky to have gone to university and completed my studies and thankful that my family realised that education is a powerful tool for a woman to have, so when I decided to commit to this cause, I had their full backing.’’
“FGM is a very sensitive issue in my community. How you approach it is critical. You must involve people of all ages and sexes for you to be taken seriously. You especially cannot afford to leave out the elders. We reach out to the community through workshops, trainings and social media campaigns,’’ Chesang says.
A beneficiary of the Akili Dada fellowship, an organisation that recognises young women driving change in their communities, works with a team of other volunteers who include reformed cutters, traditional and formally-trained midwives, teachers, village elders and religious leaders all who play a role in the campaign against FGM.
WORKING WITH GLOBAL, GRASSROOTS INITIATIVES
The history and religion-trained teacher is the Country Coordinator for the End FGM Global Media Campaign. She is also a co-founder and director of Beyond FGM, a UK-registered charity that works at the grassroots with Kepsteno Rotwo, a community based organisation (CBO) in West Pokot.
The campaign, she says, has attracted the attention of major organisations operating in the North Rift region.
“The World Vision, The Girl Generation, the End FGM Global Media Campaign, Human Dignity Foundation and Wallace Global Fund have all given us capacity support. Under the Global Media Campaign, we have created a network of young grassroots activists from different communities where FGM is practised, and with who I work to speak against this backward rite.”
Chesang’s initiative to empower Pokot girls has also taken her places. This year, she was among the 60 Queen’s Young Leaders from the Commonwealth world honoured by Queen Elizabeth.
“This recognition renewed my zeal to fight this violence against women. Even as I traverse the county, sometimes by foot, I know I am not alone, that there are those that are watching,” she says.
While the Pokot stubbornly hold on to this rite of passage, Chesang’s campaign has punched significant holes into the practice.
“Operating as a Community Based Organisation has been our greatest strength. Involving the community enables us to penetrate even the remotest parts of the county with little resistance,’’ says Chesang, noting that despite its prohibition by the law, poverty, illiteracy and ignorance contribute to continued practise of FGM among communities living in the North Rift region.
“Essential information is yet to reach all. Sadly, West Pokot County is one of the regions in Kenya where many children still do not have access to education, while majority of parents here are illiterate,’’ she says. According to her, Pokot’s dependency on cattle as their sole livelihood “makes it nearly impossible to support children, especially girls, through school”. Lack of political goodwill from local leaders has also derailed her campaign, she adds. Leaders in the region, she says, are hand-picked by elders and presented to the community for election.
“Politicians are elected on the basis of their promise to safeguard the community’s traditions. My wish is to have politicians who will salvage Pokot people from primitive cultural practices that hinder our progress,” Chesang says, calling on the new governor of West Pokot, John Lonyangapuo, to deliver on his campaign promise of education for all. Financial constraints, she asserts, have not dimmed her resolve to achieve a community that is FGM-free.
“We are a small grassroots organisation with minimal resources, which makes it difficult to implement complex models to fight FGM, such as the use of mainstream media. If we could get enough facilitation, reaching out to more people in the villages would be easier.”
But how has her campaign been received?
“The response has been positive so far, but the journey has not been easy. My community is progressing slowly; it just needs more work. The momentum needs to be maintained. Our communities will abandon FGM when they get the right support, equal opportunities and exposure. Change will only come when the people are involved in all ways. No educated member of the Pokot community supports the ritual, which shows that our people just lack access to consistent and all-inclusive sex education.”