Koota Injena: Training male champions to stand up against FGM

This story is part of our Koota Injena series. Through our activity called Koota Injena (“Come let us talk” in the Borana language), which is funded by USAID, we are engaging communities in Samburu and Marsabit Counties in Kenya through intergenerational dialogues to collectively abandon FGM and child marriage. We train “champions” in the community to hold open discussions and help their peers, family and friends re-envision how girls are treated, why their rights should be respected and why they should finish their education. One of the innovative approaches of Koota Injena is engaging with clan elders, who make decisions for the rest of the community. This approach is working. In just one year, we reached 99 high level clan elders, all of whom have changed their hearts and minds about FGM and child marriage.

Wario is 27 years old and lives in Marsabit County, Kenya near the Ethiopian border. By trade, he is a boda-boda driver – a boda-boda is a motorbike that passengers can hire like a taxi. But Wario has another important role in his community: he is a youth advocate and organizer as well as a champion against female genital mutilation (FGM) and child marriage.

Wario tells us that he had always known that FGM was harmful but kept silent when he was growing up: “When I was younger, we would see the challenges that girls face when they are cut, but because it was a practice that has been done by our culture for generations, my friends and I were silent.”

Almost all the women in Wario’s life including his sisters have experienced the cut: “I only remember my younger sister being cut. She really cried…We as boys were chased away from the place where they were doing the cut. We were told not to look but you could still hear the crying. My friends and I didn’t talk about these issues because we were so young.”

Last year, Wario decided to stand up for the women in his community and became a champion against FGM. “I have a passion for helping my community against practices that negatively affect it. When I saw that Amref was coming to our community with the same idea, I decided to become a champion so that the things I was thinking could come out fruitfully and help others.”

In 2017, Amref Health Africa came to Wario’s community with our Koota Injena initiative. “I am telling other young men not to marry circumcised girls. It helps to say that I am willing to do the same,” Wario tells us.

As a champion against FGM, Wario engages with anyone who is willing to listen to him as a way to normalize discussions about FGM:

“I’m a boda-boda driver. Whenever the other boda-boda guys don’t have any customers, we meet in town and we just sit down and talk. If I have a male customer on my boda-boda, I can say to him, ‘You are not yet married. When it’s time, a girl who is not circumcised is good for you.’

If they have already married a circumcised girl, I tell them all the challenges they will face in the future. Even when I’m riding in a matatu [a privately-owned minibuses widely used as public transportation], I’ll talk to whoever is on my right side…whoever is willing to listen. I am always playing my role as a champion.”

Wario and his friends go to nearby villages twice a week to share the messages they learned about FGM in public spaces and gatherings. He also holds meetings with both men and women around his age three to four times a month where they discuss FGM and other issues that youth in the community face: “We ask each other the challenges that we face and learn from each other. Unemployment is a big challenge among the youth here.”

To make lasting change against FGM, Wario emphasizes how important it is to involve youth:

“The world is being operated by youth now. Youth are going to drive future generations, so to me, the youth are the key people to be reached in society. Inclusiveness is very important. Messages about the negative effects of FGM should be created and targeted to youth because you’re giving them useful information about their future. A girl who is uncut is helpful to her family, herself, and her health and young men who want to marry uncut girls need to be concerned with women’s health.”

In Wario’s community, elders are highly respected and make the decisions for the entire community. While some elders have had their minds changed about FGM, others continue to be set in their ways which poses a huge challenge for Wario and his fellow champions:

“We want girls to be uncut because we know the truth about it. We have diverse communication with so many people outside of our community, so we have more knowledge than our elders about this. We approach them but the biggest interference is that this is the culture they came up with.”

When we tell them about the negative impacts of FGM they say to us that this practice has been going on for thousands of years but now you’re telling us that it’s wrong. ‘You young guys haven’t even tested the world. Why are you telling me what we should do?’. Those are the responses they give us.

But still, we have fathers who understand, and these fathers can take these messages and sit with the other elders. In Borana culture, there are elders who serve as a parliament that guide the Borana people and decide what practices should be respected and followed. I can’t approach these people, but my father can. Even if I wanted to, my father is more respected than I am, so I give my father these messages and he consults with them. There still needs to be a link between generations.”

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