By Njoki Githinji
At Barpello Nursery School in Baringo County, Kenya, Lilian Noeli was teaching children between the ages of 8 - 13. She became concerned that 16 out of 19 girls in her class had not resumed school. She decided to visit some of their parents to find out why.
Lilian visited the home of Mary, one of her students. She was shocked by what she saw.
She found the 12-year-old lying on leaves with her legs bound together with a rope, propped up against the mud wall of her room. She noticed that Mary had a fresh wound on her genitalia. She had undergone Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and was to be married off as soon as she healed.
Lilian knew that none of her 16 students would resume school after marriage. She realized the only thing to do was advocate against FGM so that girls in her community would stay in school.
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines FGM as any procedure involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injuries to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. Globally, an estimated 200 million girls and women by 2020 had undergone FGM in 30 countries mainly in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
In May 2021, H.E President Uhuru Kenyatta awarded Lilian, alongside others, the Presidential Award in recognition of her efforts advocating against FGM and child marriages in her community.
Born in a family of 10 children in Barpello village, Lilian was lucky to have a mother who protected her from FGM and child marriage. That allowed her to receive an education.
She had difficulty staying in school due to a lack of money, but luckily met Catholic missionaries who paid for her education.
When in boarding school, Lilian could not go home during holidays due to fear of being pressured to be cut. In her community, a woman who is uncut, unmarried and childless by the time she is in her teens is considered cursed.
Despite ridicule and humiliation, she focused on her education. She emerged as the best performing girl in the Kenya Certificate of Secondary School Examinations (KCSE) in her constituency.
Although education for girls in her community is considered unnecessary, her mother encouraged her to ignore community pressure to abandon school.
When Lilian joined university in 2013 to study journalism, she was the only girl in her class from the Pokot community. It was exciting to be the first but disappointing to realize how retrogressive cultures denied girls education and the ability to have the life they want.
As Lilian continued to get her degree, in 2016 she founded Desert Hope Girls, a community-based Foundation to campaign against FGM and rescue girls from child marriages. She operates through community mobilization and registered the foundation in 2019 under the name Sauti ya dada (The girl’s voice).
“I do community dialogue. We sit down with community members and have a straight and organized dialogue on issues towards girls’ protection. Sometimes we involve the police to help arrest parents who let their girls be cut. FGM is against the law,” she said.
After rescuing girls and ensuring they continue their education, the organization holds an alternative rite of passage.
“FGM is considered a rite of passage for girls to transit to womanhood,” she said. “In its place, we hold a one-week seminar for the girls where they are educated on issues of children’s rights, self-awareness, general health, reproductive health and the importance of education. At the end, we hold a graduation ceremony. We've so far trained approximately 2,000 girls across Tiaty Constituency.”
Lilian noted that her motivation against FGM is its severe harm. When girls are denied education and married off as children, they can’t make a difference in society or enjoy life as they should.
“When you empower a girl, especially education-wise, she can make sound decisions for her life. I like my culture, but I cannot promote parts of it that degrade women,” said Lilian.
Research by WHO indicates that effects of FGM include:
· Severe pain
· Excessive bleeding
· Blood infections
· Inability to empty the bladder
· Recurrent slow healing sores
· Injury to close-by tissue
· Death (in some cases)
· Complications during childbirth
· Painful sexual intercourse
· Sexual dysfunction
· Risk of HIV transmission
Lilian has been able to rescue 517 girls through her organization. Despite her achievements, she has had challenges throughout her journey.
“One of the challenges I face is hostility from my community. As an uncut and unmarried woman, they still consider me a child who cannot advise grownups,” she laments.
She also faces challenges of inadequate funds to drive her campaigns and a lack of support from the local government.
Lilian has found that the alternative rite of the passage gives girls confidence, self-awareness, self-esteem and makes them ambassadors against retrogressive cultures.
Tips for excelling in advocacy
To aspiring activists, Lilian advised that advocacy is a tough job where you may step on people’s toes and can make enemies fast. Therefore you have to be:
· Passionate and have faith that you will make a difference.
· Responsible and self-driven.
· Accept setbacks. Everyone makes mistakes and it’s important to learn from them.
· Resilient to get through the rough times.
My key takeaways
According to Lilian, to be an activist, all I need is the courage and the desire to help those in need.
I learned that:
· I must work with relevant authorities to succeed in advocacy
· Be informed especially on laws about gender issues
· Seek allies to help in my course
As I prepare to join the advocacy world, I intend to read more, get acquainted with the constitution of Kenya, research on organizations that advocate for human rights and liaise with other activists.
Lilian called for more people to support organizations that help make the lives of underprivileged girls better. I want to respond accordingly.
Njoki Githinji is a student at Southern New Hampshire University Pursuing a Bachelor's degree in Communication with a concentration in Healthcare Management. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.