Meet Rachel, an End FGM/C champion in Kenya.
“I’m Rachel. I’m 23-years- old and from Kaijado County, Kenya. I’m the second born in the family. I have a great older brother and three lovely young sisters. I’m a proud Maasai-girl but there is one thing in my community which really disturbs me: female genital mutilation and cutting (FGM/C). I therefore use my voice for change as an End FGM/C Champion.
I am fortunate that I have never been subjected to FGM/C myself. But this also made me a target for bullying and stigma. I knew my life would be different, in a good way, compared to other girls in my community, because my parents never wanted me to go through FGM/C. I was able to finish school, go to university and get my degree in Communications and PR and now at 23 I’m working to become the woman of my dreams. But this road was never easy.”
What is your motivation to do this work?
“My parents knew about the dangers of FGM/C and they wanted me to go to university, get a good job and be able to take care of myself financially and not depend on anyone. We saw that in my community young girls were getting cut [another term for FGM/C] and then dropping out of school and getting married. My community didn’t accept me for not being cut. They were bullying me, calling me names and I got stigmatized. This was a horrible time for me; I even got to a point where I even asked my parents to let me undergo the cut. Because I couldn’t handle the bullying anymore.
Luckily my parents kept on saying that the cut was bad for me and convinced me to stay in school. And I’m so happy they did. I now use my story to convince other girls and that’s how I stop them from being cut.”
Can you describe your work for Amref Health Africa?
“At the campus of my school there were different gatherings and meetings and as a young girl you could register to speak in front of people. I really liked using the stage and my voice to address various topics. I was sharing stories about being a girl, our rights and also about female genital mutilation and cutting. I told them my story, that I never went through FGM/C and that my community bullied me for that. The other students found my story very empowering and elected me as their youth leader and that’s where I met Amref Health Africa. I’m now working as a Pan-African End FGM/C champion.
As a champion, I act as a mentor for the young girls in my community. During the Alternative Rite of Passage I train young boys and girls about their rights, sexuality and how their bodies work. They get life skills training and learn how to speak out, which I find very important. I always share my story and encourage them to finish school. Because I’m coming from the same community they understand me and accept my words. I’m a role model for the girls because they see that a girl from the same community went to university, got a good degree, makes a living and is independent. This gives them the inspiration and power to do the same and to believe in themselves.”
How has COVID-19 affected your area?
“The corona pandemic really set us back. It was so hard for us to bring people together [because of requirements for social distancing]. I used to organize a lot of forums where I could speak and inform people about FGM/C, child marriages and teenage pregnancies. It really scared me that if we would be silent there would be a lot of girls affected by the pandemic. Luckily, because of my work as a youth leader at campus, I have many followers on social media. The pandemic made me use my social channels even more. I could reach many communities and share their stories.
I always take an opportunity to raise my voice. For example: I visited small forums which were on different topics like handwashing. I took the stage there to educate people on the sexual and reproductive health and rights topics. Also Amref Health Africa really helped us to reach the communities. They introduced me to the local radio stations and I could do several shows there on FGM/C and Alternative Rites of Passage. This helped me reach thousands of people, even communities far, far away.”
How has COVID-19 affected the lives of girls and women?
“The pandemic is very challenging for girls and women in Kenya. Because of school closure the children didn’t go to school for almost a year and they were exposed to gender-based violence. Luckily, schools have re-opened now but in the area where I live almost 50% of the girls won’t go back because they became pregnant or went through FGM/C and got married off. Parents were desperate because there was hardly any work so some parents decided to let their daughters get married so they would have have fewer children to feed.”
What are you doing to help girls?
“My motto is knowledge is power. It makes me sad to see so many girls drop out of school. That’s why I won’t stop until I can convince as many girls and parents as possible to continue with their education.
Together with Amref Health Africa in Kenya we working to make sure all the girls can go back to school, pregnant or not. I’m going door-to-door to convince the girls and their parents. The chief and leaders from the villages where I work are sitting around the table with the local government to see if they can do anything at a governmental level. The girls who went through FGM/C are provided with after care by the local community health workers.
There are two young girls who I helped successfully quite recently. There were such brave, bold, and beautiful girls who were doing great at school. Due to the pandemic they stayed at home for almost a year without any education. When the schools re-opened their father didn’t want them to go back to school because the family was struggling financially. I couldn’t just watch and do nothing so I raised money with my friends and we got enough so we could pay for their education, books and uniforms. This sounds like such a small thing to do but this small thing means the world to those two young girls. I spoke to them recently and they are doing great and getting good grades which makes me very proud. They can now become whoever they want. This really encourages me to keep on doing my work, every day.”
What is your motivation?
“The girls and the change in the community is what inspires me every day. For example the two young girls who are now back in school. They resemble a lot of Kenyan girls who just need one opportunity to make something out of their life instead of being married at a young age. It drives me to see girls achieve things. Every day I want people to become better and change and transform old traditions and embrace changes. It really brings the community further if girls are not being cut but finish education. I’m the living proof: I’m not cut and I have finished my education.”
What is your ambition?
“A world free of FGM/C and a community led by girls who have a voice. Who dare to speak their minds. I believe we are taking small steps but we are getting there. I hope we can educate more role models in the community who can help us reach more girls and bring them back to school. The girls who finish their education can serve as a role model and show how their education is changing their life. Let’s create an army of girls who wear education as a weapon.”
Do you have some words of wisdom for young girls all around the world?
“Knowledge is power, embrace change, say no to stigma.” In time, everything is possible. Even though I haven’t been cut I’m still part of the community and that is something that will never change. The most important thing: if you ever get bullied or stigmatized you should speak out and tell them the cut is bad. If more and more girls speak out and say no we can break the taboo.”