The African Women Rights Advocates (AWRA) movement has been strengthening its efforts in some of Kenya’s most remote villages to help reduce the rates of child marriage and Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).
“One of the main challenges is accessibility to the remote villages where FGM and child marriage cases are high, that’s why not much advocacy has been done here. Illiteracy levels are still very high in these parts. This is one of the reasons why we have up to 100 percent FGM prevalence rate in many villages,” said AWRA founding member Domtila Chesang, who is leading civic engagement and dialogue to end FGM and child marriage.
West Pokot County – where Domtila is currently leading campaign efforts – has had hundreds of girls undergoing FGM and counting since March 2020 when lockdown measures were first enacted to slow down the spread of the Covid-19 virus.
Since then, the cases of child marriage have doubled. The village currently doesn’t have a functioning rescue center or safe refuge for children at risk of such abuse.
West Pokot is located on Kenya’s border with Uganda. Its capital and largest town is Kapenguria. The village has a population of 621,241, according to the 2019 census.
“If a child is at risk, their chances of safely escaping and finding help are minimal as they either run to relatives, neighbors, or authorities, if accessible. This is not always the safest because some end up being caught and forced into either child marriage or other abuse like defilement after a thorough beating,” Domtila said.
In some cases, Domtila has turned her home into a temporary safe-haven for girls that have escaped FGM or child marriage.
“I sometimes get calls from people in the community asking me to take girls in, or sometimes the girls themselves run to me for help. I help them go back to school, I make sure they are rescued and are in safe hands, then we process other legal matters and support,” said Domtila.
Domtila and her teams are currently working on empowering more locals to form anti-FGM squads, which will be professionally trained to campaign in their local languages. She has been able to form and develop new groups to help existing grassroots activists campaign in remote villages.
“It takes sacrifice to go to the villages. The roads are really underdeveloped, as West Pokot County is characterized by hilly and mountainous terrain with very poor road network, poor connectivity, and limited communication,” she added.
Nevertheless, men and women alike were convinced to join the grassroots efforts to minimize the impact as much as possible during the Covid-19 lockdown after hearing Domtila and her teams speak about the devastating impact of FGM and child marriage in their communities.
The best part is that men are slowly interested and well-involved in the project, Domtila says.
“Men are now publicly and openly speaking out about FGM, which is a plus for us, we are now encouraging them to be active and come out to advocate against such crimes,” Domtila added.
The campaigns include travel to different villages, dialogues, alternative rites of passages, and training for youth so that they too can speak to members of their communities to create awareness about abuse, such as FGM, child marriage, defilements or domestic violence.
However, the creation of safe spaces where children can be protected and given both physical and psychosocial support requires stronger backing from international communities and additional funding.
“We are desperate to set up something permanent in the community, but we have no budget as of now. It has become difficult, and we can only wish to do so even for few months until schools reopen after the current restrictions and Covid -19 measures,” Domtila added.