ActionAid is a global movement of people working together to further human rights and defeat poverty for all.

Safe schools help Kuria girls know their rights

The Kuria, living in Migori County at the border of the larger Suba, Migori and Rongo districts is among ethnic communities in Kenya who owe their distinction to rampant Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), practiced quite vastly on girls between the age of 8 and 15 years. 

According to community elders and non-governmental organisations working in Kuria District, the central purpose of this practice is to initiate a girl into womanhood and adulthood as a vital rite of passage. 

FGM practice has been propagated by such numerous factors as empowerment of one’s social status and reducing a woman’s sexual desires among others. 

But Ms Margaret Nkorogo Gati, the deputy head teacher at Chacha Moroa Primary School, says the practice has far reaching effects on girls in the community, which range from social, cultural, economic, health and education.

“The rights of Kuria women continue to be abused by the culture of FGM which is a stumbling block to the girl child’s pursuit of education and economic advancement. Once the girls undergo the practice at a tender age they are forced into marriage hence they drop out of school and are unable to enjoy opportunities that good education brings people,” says Nkorogo.

Although there have been efforts from the government and civil society to fight the practice, the community has remained rigid because of the social stigma that is associated with girls who refuse to undergo the rite.

The girls known as mosogane – a derogatory word for uncircumcised girl – are barred from attending social functions, getting vegetables from the farm or drawing water from same water points as their colleagues who have undergone the rite. 

“Young men from the community also shy away from uncircumcised girls and despite its dangers being known to them the fear of losing out on marriage exerts a lot of pressure on them to be circumcised,” says Nkorogo.

However, there has been a new impetus in the struggle to save the girls from the harmful cultural practices following a project by ActionAid International Kenya in Kuria.

Through the Kuria Local Rights Programme (LRP), ActionAid has been implementing the Safe Schools for Girls (SSG) project aimed at ensuring girls are able to enjoy their rights to education and participate in a violence-free environment for better learning outcomes.

Kuria LRP Manager, Ms. Lina Moraa, says the two-year project was established in 2013 to enlighten girls on their rights and empower them to hold the schools and their communities accountable for safer environment.

Moraa says ActionAid wanted to strengthen the capacity of communities and their institutions to advocate for violence- free environment for girls in schools.

“We realised that the girl child in Kuria was under risk from FGM and early marriages and the most feasible way of helping them out of the situation was to make the schools safe havens for them. We work with the girls to acknowledge the cultural issues they go through and the impact they have on their health and education,” says Moraa.

ActionAid has also involved the participation of local women through the Gesoso Women Network, whose members have benefited from paralegal training and a series of seminars on the rights of women and the girl child. In case of violence against the girls, the network is able to know the channels to pursue in search of justice for the victims.

The project also involved strengthening the capacity of education stakeholders to address violence against girls in and out of schools.

Through the project, pupils have been mobilised into the girls’ forums where they are taught about the dangers of FGM and importance of education.

Ms Anne Magoko, the head teacher of Bikarabwa Primary School and co-ordinator of the SSG project in Migori County says the forums allow the girls to freely share their experiences and report any cases of abuse to the teachers who act as counsellors during the sessions.

The project involves 17 schools in Migori County and has so far helped rescue more than 2,000 girls from FGM and early marriages.

“The SSG has empowered teachers to meet these girls and use role models to enlighten them on the dangers of the retrogressive cultural practices and importance of education. The girls know their rights, have high self esteem and are able to defend themselves from harmful cultures,” says Mogoko.

Mr. Richard Mwanzi, Kehancha division education officer, says the SSG project has complimented the government’s policy on back to school as girls who dropped out due to FGM and early marriages have been able to return and continue with education.

Mwanzi says the rate of enrolment and retention of girls in the schools has gone up while performance in national exams has tremendously improved.

“Some of the schools have never taken girls to national schools but during the last Kenya Certificate of Primary Education, five girls from the LRP were able to join national secondary schools,” he says.

Fourteen-year-old Beatrice Kemunto (not her real name) is one of the beneficiaries of the SSG project. A Class 8 pupil at Gwikonge Primary School, Kemunto’s dream of becoming a medical doctor was almost shattered in 2012 after her father decided not to pay her school fees for refusing to get circumcised.

“My mother and I were thrown out of home for defying culture. My mother was even caned for taking sides with me on the matter,” she narrates.  

Kemunto was, however, rescued by a patron of the girls’ forum who introduced her to the Gesoso Women Network. Her school fee is taken care of by the network through the support of ActionAid.

Kemunto who is a member of the girls’ forum in her school says during the bi-weekly sessions they are also taught about reproductive health issues and life skill.