alexa How circumcision campaign gave Nyanza women a voice - Daily Nation

How circumcision campaign gave Nyanza women a voice

Sunday May 22 2016

Prof Agot Kawango of Research and Development Organisation (IRDO) during an interview in her office in Kisumu. Prof Kawango said that the role of women, albeit muted, could not be ignored in the circumcision exercise. PHOTO | TONNY OMONDI | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Prof Agot Kawango of Research and Development Organisation (IRDO) during an interview in her office in Kisumu. Prof Kawango said that the role of women, albeit muted, could not be ignored in the circumcision exercise. PHOTO | TONNY OMONDI | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

VERAH OKEYO
By VERAH OKEYO
More by this Author

The title that Mary Ochieng’ uses to refer to her husband — Wuon parwa that is loosely translated to mean “the owner of our thoughts” in Dholuo — speaks volumes of the kind of relationship she has with him.

From who to support between the government and opposition to which hospital she attends and what she will use her salary on, Mary has abdicated the duty of thought to her husband.

At her home in Wagusu, Bondo, she says she is comfortable to worry about the meals they take every day.

That was the state of affairs until a decision had to be made about whether or not her husband was to get circumcised in 2008.

Gilbert Ochieng’, her husband, says: “She persuaded me to get it.”

After politicians rallied men in Luo Nyanza to get circumcised in 2008, the Luo community’s gender relations shifted as demonstrated by the Ochiengs and many couples that Sunday Nation spoke to, on or off record.

Advertisement

For once, women in a patriarchal society that has denied them opinions even on matters concerning their health, had a role to play in deciding about a sensitive matter that touched on an organ that defines a man’s identity.

Nyanza, as indicated in the 2014 Kenyan Demographic Health Survey (KDHS), is an extremely patriarchal society.

After Rift Valley, Nyanza records the highest percentage of men who control the family’s income including the woman’s earnings: Only 34 per cent of women make decisions over their own health.

The lead researcher in the circumcision exercise, Prof Agot Kawango of Research and Development Organisation (IRDO), said that the role of women, albeit muted, could not be ignored.

After circumcision, she said, the man needed to abstain from sexual relations for six weeks until the wound healed properly.

“If the woman is not involved, or she was not told, there would be a problem in those six weeks of healing,” Prof Kawango said.

For some men, the fear of losing their wives to cancer was the reason they went for the operation.

The physiology of an uncut male sexual organ had been implicated in other studies as a source of the human papilloma virus that causes cervical cancer.

Fredrick Onyango Osano told the Sunday Nation that he does not know much about cancer, but he knows that it kills.

His wife, Florence Atieno, told him she had heard in the media that the removal of the foreskin would protect her from cancer of the cervix because of the “dirt therein”.

“We have not had any children so I wanted to protect her, and went for the cut”, he said.

A WOMAN'S RESPONSIBILITY
At 27, Fredrick Osano formed the age bracket — 25 to 35 — that health care workers had termed “most sexually active and responsible for spreading the virus the most”.

Dennis Mboya, a technical adviser for Family Aids Care and Education Services was in the team that had been constituted by the Ministry of Health to drive the exercise.

Mr Mboya said that for a long time, they were unable to get to that age group because they were mainly manual workers who said they could not stay off work even for a week as they healed.

However, in Osano’s case, his 24-year-old wife assured him of her support during those days he would be out of work.

Mboya says that from the conversations he had with the men who underwent the cut at the 20 sites for the exercise, women played a role in pushing men to come forward.

In some communities in Kenya, circumcision is a crucial part of a man’s rite of passage with those who fail to go through it frowned upon.

The Luo make up the largest portion of the 15 per cent of the people in Kenya who do not carry out this rite of passage. Others are the Turkana, the Pokot and the Teso.

Mboya said: “Some of the reasons for the cut during the conversation would revolve around the men having heard that the circumcised men were better in bed, and that wives of rich uncircumcised Luo men would prefer even circumcised farm hands, so in fearing that they would be seen as not being man enough, they came for the cut in droves.”

Prof Kawango said that women played the crucial role of consulting and mobilising in the initial stages of the exercise.

"There were women in the Luo Council of Elders, those who went to the community to talk about benefits of the procedure."

At Kisumu County Hospital, the Sunday Nation found mothers who had brought their sons to get the cut.

“It is women who always bore the brunt of HIV as they took care of their sons when they fell sick;  they are the ones dealing with broken marriages when the women leave them after they find that the man is positive so they participated in encouraging the exercise.”

PEER PRESSURE

In 2006, a WHO-back study found that circumcision reduces HIV transmission in heterosexual couples by up to 60 per cent.

Luo Nyanza makes up less than 10 per cent of Kenya’s population but accounts for nearly half the country’s HIV burden, according to the National Aids Control Council.

Peer pressure also played a role in encouraging men to get circumcised.

Felix Ageke, a clinician and a team leader at the Kisumu District Hospital, said that he himself went for the cut because it became very shameful for uncircumcised men in the medical college in Kisumu where he was.

He said: “You would never have peace among your peers; they would mock you and ridicule you until you had no choice but to go for the cut”.