SOURCE: Unbound

February 05, 2016 15:41 ET

Unbound Focuses on Empowerment to End FGM in Kenya

According to the World Health Organization, FGM has Affected More Than 125 Million Girls and Women in 29 Countries in Africa and the Middle East; In Areas of Kenya, Local Unbound Staff Members Work to Educate Families in Their Program About the Harmful Effects of FGM and Empower Them to Become Advocates in Their Communities

KANSAS CITY, KS--(Marketwired - February 05, 2016) -  The practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) has been outlawed in Kenya since 2011. But it will take a lot more than a law to stop the deeply ingrained cultural ritual in communities where FGM is the norm.

On Feb. 6, International Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM, governments are asked to commit to ending FGM.

Unbound is a humanitarian organization working in 20 countries, including Kenya. Local staff members in Kenya empower families by educating communities about the harmful effects of FGM.

"Mostly FGM is done through coercion, directly or indirectly," said Anthony Kinot Ringera, youth contact person for Unbound in Meru, Kenya. "Girls who refuse to go through the rite are bullied and they feel they have to do it to fit into their community."

FGM is the practice of cutting or removing the genitals of girls as they reach puberty. For many, the purpose behind the ritual is to limit a girl's sexual feelings, keeping her pure for marriage.

The procedure is typically performed by an older woman in the community, often in unsanitary conditions, and can result in pain, infection, infertility, complications during childbirth and even death.

Beyond that, girls who go through FGM are more likely to leave school and marry young, increasing their chances of remaining locked in a cycle of poverty.

A 2012 Unbound program evaluation in Kenya's Meru area cited FGM and early marriage as the two main cultural barriers to education.

"FGM matures them hurriedly," said Marius Wanjiku, a program coordinator for Unbound in Meru, Kenya. "Some feel like it's time to drop out of school and start families. The community also feels the girls are old enough to make choices, so when they decide to drop out of school, their families are in support."

Openly challenging deeply held cultural beliefs would do little to end the practice, and would likely damage trust between Unbound staff members and the families they serve. So Unbound works with families instead of against FGM to bring about change.

"We try to empower our families," said Wanjiku. "We do not want them to feel like they are leaving behind their culture."

Local Unbound staff members invite Kenyan medical officers and anti-FGM groups to speak to parents and youth during support meetings and seminars. There is a staff member whose focus is on child protection concerns, such as FGM, and a group of Unbound university students organized an anti-FGM walk to create and spread awareness of FGM.

"FGM is a culture that was practiced by many cultures in Kenya, way back before independence," Wanjiku said. "So when we are approaching it, we let [the families] know that we know it was there before and that it is something we should outgrow as a country. We let them know that the culture is predominant in the county where we serve them. We try to refer them to people who can talk to them about this, freely and comfortably."

Families within the Unbound sponsorship program can become some of the best advocates against FGM for their friends and neighbors.

Daniel, the father of a boy sponsored through the Unbound program, also has four daughters. Daniel is proud of his cultural heritage, but said he would never subject his daughters to FGM.

 Daniel and his wife Sophia, in Kenya, oppose FGM.

"I chose to carry the culture that is good and do away with that which is harmful," he said. "Immediately after circumcision, the girl is married off. Many girls are age 12 at the circumcision initiation. I would never let my daughters go through such a humiliating thing."

Several years of gentle engagement have paid off, according to Unbound staff. Parents come to the office voluntarily to talk about FGM, looking for ways to help the families who practice it.

Wanjiku says the key to ending FGM, as with most harmful practices, is straight talk and education, empowering families to make healthy and safe decisions for their girls.

An evaluation in Unbound's Meru program found that more than 90 percent of sponsored members surveyed said they felt confident and empowered to speak out against harmful practices. Another study found that girls and boys sponsored through Unbound stayed in school longer than the national average for Kenya, with girls remaining in school slightly longer than boys.

"We believe that information is power. So we empower them by giving out as much information as we can," Wanjiku said.

About Unbound

Unbound is the largest nonprofit organization in Kansas with more than $120 million in annual revenue. Unbound works side by side with people of diverse faiths in 20 countries, bringing people together to challenge poverty in new and innovative ways.

Unbound distributes direct aid as quickly and efficiently as possible to people who need it. 92.5 percent of Unbound's expenses go toward program support.

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