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Domtila Chesang: "Female Genital Mutilation is a violation of human rights not just women and girls’ rights" Back

Saturday, 2/6/2021   
Domtila Chesang is from West Pokot (Kenya). In a region where Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is a common practice, this young woman became a symbol of fight for the elimination of FGM. In 2017, she received, at Buckingham Palace, a distinction for her work near the communities and the women and girls at risk: Queen’s Young Leaders Award, assigned by the queen of England. Today, she’s still an outstanding voice for women’s rights and for the eradication of a practice that puts at risk more than 3 million girls per year.

A tradition with an essential role in some communities either by social convention, belief or femininity cultural ideals. Since the end of XX century, UN and UNICEF seek to create policies intended to eliminate this practice. International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation is one of those efforts to mark the fight against a practice that is still legal in more than a dozen countries.
Ending Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) has been a long fight. How do you weight the progress made since 2003, when UN sponsored the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation?
It is true that the campaign on FGM has been an uphill task but worthwhile. We have come from far and am proud to say that I am among the first beneficiary of the first conversation on FGM. I had attained the cutting age when the first conversation to challenge FGM had just started. I can say that I narrowly escaped FGM and survived the consequences that comes with it. Were it not for this campaign I would have been a victim and this would be a different story altogether. The progress has been slow but the fact that there’s still progress is worth celebrating.

The truth is it hasn’t been easy convincing communities to abandon their deeply rooted cultural practices that they were born to. The fight has consumed more resources compared to the impact created. There are several factors that are yet to be unearthed for FGM to come to the face and center of attention. FGM is not a standalone practice, there are several factors that need to be addressed for it to be slayed.

These factors are the elephant in the room, FGM is one single problem, poverty is an example, access to basic education is another. There’s still work to be done.

What's missing to be able to end this practice?

Female Genital Mutilation is a violation of human rights not just women and girls’ rights. The question is how many people realizes and accepts this truth, very few, not even African leaders. In an African set up women are to be seen not heard. Their opinions do not count and sadly they have also been socialized to believe and even support this narrative.

It is women who cut, it is women who stigmatize fellow women for not going through FGM. It is women who still believe that challenging stereotype and gender disparities is against women’s, laws. A woman’s place is not in the kitchen but anywhere they want to be.
What remains to be done is a wholesome women and girls empowerment approach in all sectors. Women need to be educated, women need to be politically, economically and socially empowered.

Girls need to have equal access to quality education. The government needs to ensure that child protection policies are not only casted on paper but are practically being implemented. I just really think the African leaders especially, because Africa alone has the highest numbers of FGM. They need to get a little serious about the issue and stop being ignorant of the facts.

You cofounded "Kepsteno Rotwo" (Abandon the Knife), a project that intends to eradicate this practice and that is working closely with the communities, sensitizing for the risks and problems, as well as creating a safe space for these girls and women. How did you "awaken" to this issue and how
important is this for those communities to spread the message and aware for the problems caused by FGM?

I was motivated to do what I am doing because of what I witnessed and continue to witness as a result of FGM. What I witnessed being done on my cousin when I was only 11 changed my life. The height of inhuman, indignity and disrespect for humans is on another level. I still haven’t found the answers to some questions. I have always wondered how the world is still not loud enough on the atrocities being meted on the girl child.

If FGM was happening to the opposite gender would it still be this highly prevalent? These anger and realities on the ground continue to motivate me to wake up every day and save even just one girl from this. I am fighting a bottom up approach which is tougher than any other approach. you are met and confronted by the realities and numerous challenges on the ground. It’s one problem after the other. You convince your people to let girls be girls and to stop cutting them, some listen but then they don’t have the money to take the girls to school which is the only alternative. Then the girls are desperate with no alternative and they have no choice but to go back to the cut so that they can get married because their lives have to go on.

Girls who are empowered through our constant sensitization campaigns run away from home when they are faced with forced FGM and then we have nowhere to keep them! I have to figure out where to put them and in most cases they land in my house which has now become a temporary rescue home. But then after that what next? Their lives must go on, they have to go to school or do something with their lives. Where do I get the money to do that? It’s a myriad of challenges. All the same the approach is bearing fruits slowly by slowly, only if we started paying attention to grassroots empowerment we would end this faster than going round and round discussing FGM in conferences halls.

What's the most difficult in explaining to communities why this wrong?

With the communities there are a number of things you are allowed and not allowed to say. That’s why whoever is doing this must understand and respect the cultural dynamics. For instance, explaining to my community that a woman has the right to sexual pleasure will be termed so disrespectful and wrong. ‘Sex is not for pleasure but women are tools to be used for procreation.’ We talk about other women’s rights but not sex.

Do you want to leave a message on this day?

The problem of FGM is bigger than we imagine but manageable if we truly decide to invest in its eradication. It will take some time but surely we can do better than the current crawling pace. The patience and tolerance we are witnessing on FGM does not resonate with the campaign dubbed zero tolerance to FGM.