‘School can make girls into women, not FGM’


Maasai women from the Osurwa Enduor Women’s Group. © Sidi Sarro

Sidi Sarro and Francis Odhiambo ask a group of Maasai women in Kenya about the challenges they encounter in a community slow to change.

What difficulties have Maasai women experienced in the past and how are you tackling them?

The lives of Maasai women were not very good before because we just sat idly: we waited for the men to find food and to tend to the cattle. If they returned without the food they were searching for, there was nothing we could do. And then kirangazi [the hot and dry season, between October and December] came and killed our cows. Our women decided to unite and form a group. The first reason for this was that if one of us got really sick, we would be ready to help with her duties.

Would you say Maasai women have a voice in your society?

We don’t have a say in front of the men. But now we are starting to understand each other a bit more because of the group we have formed – the men see that we have developed. So now if I go to my husband and tell him that there is a project I want to do, he tries to listen to me.

So, you think that with proper training your voices can be heard?

Yes…I think, with enough training, changes will take place. Even now, some bad customs are slowly ceasing. For example, in the past, if a daughter was supposed to get married, her mother would have no say in the matter. If she tried to speak out, both mother and daughter would be thrown out of the house. But now women secretly tell the other women in our group so that they can come to rescue the daughter. If men were given the knowledge through teaching, then they would understand that even women have a voice. But currently, not all men have that knowledge.

What would your group like to teach other Maasai women?

We would like them to learn beekeeping, flowering, planting trees and looking after the environment. We also want more teaching from other women because we have attended several seminars on the abolition of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM); we want people from outside to get this knowledge so that it can help them learn more about FGM and early marriages.

Some women have been demonstrating by blocking roads because they want their girls to be circumcised. What do you have to say to them?

I advise these women to educate their girls instead. We don’t have to circumcise them to prove that they are women – schools can make girls into women. These women are actually losing their children.

We have seen people who were circumcised by our community a long time ago who are all adults now and it’s nothing but torture for them. When a girl gets circumcised it means she will be married off to a man, while at school girls are still seen as young.

Are there any opportunities for women to work?

There isn’t much. All you can see are small businesses here and there. Mostly, we just get food from the crops that we grow from our farms – and only a few of us farm. We rent most of our farms out. Although now, since we introduced livestock enclosures, we have learned a lot. Our group members are trying to farm small things.

We also make bead ornaments, but most of the beads just stay inside the house because there is no market for them. This is because there are plenty of Maasai people selling them. If there was a market for them, it would be easier for us to get income. A team visited us from Europe, they gave us money and we united and bought this maize grinding machine.

The women live in Kajaido County, Kenya and are part of Osurwa Enduor Women’s Group.

Sidi Sarro is a citizen journalist for Radar, a communications rights organization. Francis Odhiambo works with Maasai communities.

This article is timed to coincide with our feminism issue

Why are Kenyan boys resorting to sex work?

palm trees
Mtwapa is a popular tourist destination Beverly Trayner, under a CC License

There was recently a public outcry in the Kenyan coastal town of Mtwapa after a bar owner was arrested for running live sex shows. The story hit the headlines and religious and women’s groups come out on the street to demonstrate, angry at increasing ‘promiscuity’ in the area. But every day, a grimmer story is unfolding behind closed doors as Kenyan children are forced into a life of sex work.

In 2006, a hard-hitting report from UNICEF found that up to 30 per cent of girls in some Kenyan resorts – aged from 12 to 18 years old – were involved in the sex industry. Seven years later, child rights advocates say little has changed. Residents of Mtwapa, which is located 15-kilometres north of Mombasa – a holiday resort popular with British and European tourists – say that, if anything, the area is attracting more wealthy locals and tourists than ever, with young boys sought out as much as girls.

Beka* is a 12-year-old boy who combs the beach with other children every day, looking for white men – nicknamed muzungus – who will pay them for sex. Sometimes he also has sex with local fishermen at the marina, in exchange for fish. A student at the local school, he says the work stops him from regularly attending classes and that his parents turn a blind eye as long as he continues to help support the family.

‘My mother knows I do odd jobs like collecting scrap metals for sale and I sometimes go to the beach to “look” for muzungus but they don’t ask what I do with them in exchange for the money and the things I’m given,’ he says. ‘She gets angry when I don’t bring fish back home especially after she has given me a packet of groundnuts to give the fishermen. It is well known that the fishermen are generous to children and they give them fish to take home in exchange for a packet of groundnuts, but what is not said is that we are given fish in exchange for sex and not the groundnuts.’

Beka asserts that he is not gay but is ‘hustling’ to help support his family and that he has also been involved with elderly white women. Another Mtwapa child sex worker is Sele* who will only go with clients given to him by his uncle, who acts as his pimp. ‘My uncle brings the men to me, though sometimes we go to where they are,’ he explains. His uncle takes most of the proceeds which he spends on groceries and drugs. Sele does not go to school.

When questioned, Beka and Sele are not aware of the health risks they face. Many children their age do not know how to prevent HIV and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). In the course of their work, they do not always practice safe sex and forego condoms if the client pays more.

Sele has twice been treated for STIs. ‘When I went to hospital for treatment I was advised to use condoms, but some of the men don’t want to,’ he shrugs. Child pornography is burgeoning in the area with young girls taking part in stripping, dancing in the nude and live sex shows in local clubs. Many have travelled to Mtwapa from elsewhere in Kenya with the hope of finding a better life but find the only option is transactional sex.

While tourists are often blamed for the escalation of child prostitution in the area, UNICEF’s research found that locals encourage young people to get muzungu partners; a Kenyan girl seen walking with an elderly white man is accorded respect and honour.

Although Kenya has laws and legal provisions addressing the sexual exploitation of children, child prostitution continues unabated and many say the government is turning a blind eye.

*Names have been changed.

Sidi Sarro is a reporter with Radar (@OnOurRadar).

KENYA VOTES: Fight or flight?

Child has painted wall asking for peace
A child calls for peace in Kenya here © Radar

As images of increasingly boisterous political rallies are broadcast from Kenya, just days before the country goes to the polls, there is another, less conspicuous, movement taking place – that of people fleeing their homes in fear that the violence which wracked the country after the 2007 election will be repeated.

Gender-based violence was rife following the social breakdown during the crisis of 2007-08. Women and girls living in displacement camps were at high risk of rape and sexual abuse.

Ahead of 2013’s election on Monday 4 March, measures have been put in place to prevent violence breaking out again. But the threat of ethnic allegiances stoked by fervent political campaigning and, in some cases, illegal hate speech remains, for many, a real one.

Radar, an NGO that trains and supports networks of citizen reporters from under-represented social groups, has already received reports of rapidly increasing tensions and fear forcing women to take the decision to forfeit their vote and leave. For some, especially if they are single and the sole carer for their children, the risks of staying are too high.

However, others feel duty-bound to stay and are willing to risk doing so in order to participate in the democratic process. Preparing for the worst but hoping for the best, for some the safety of home and the community is preferable to fleeing somewhere new.

In the coastal city of Mombasa during the week leading up to the election, reports have surfaced of hate speech leaflets being circulated. Tensions in the area are already heightened by the work of secessionist movement the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC).

Here, two Radar trainees from Mombasa explain their own personal decisions. One will flee across the border to Tanzania – the fear for her and her baby’s safety too much to bear. The other will stay, exercise her right to vote and seek protection within her family.

Will you take flight?

Phoebe Matsika, 32, lives in Likoni in Kenya’s coastal region.

‘I need to vote because it’s my right. I have to vote for the right person because if I run away, I’ll still have to come back and will just find people have already decided for me and that’s not what I want.

‘I believe there’ll be no chaos this time round because people have learned from the last election and there has been a lot of civic education.

‘The people I’m living around are the same people as when I was a child. We treat others as sisters and brothers. I don’t see how we can kill our own.

‘I live in Likoni, which is friendly. I feel safe there as there are so many people from different ethnicities mixed up in the community. I’m not married but all my family live in Likoni, including my parents, two sisters and six brothers, so they protect me.

‘If there’s violence we’d just stay indoors. I won’t move out until it’s more secure. It’s better than running to somewhere you don’t know. Last time there was looting and robbing of shops.

‘Coast people are Muslims and they follow their religion so they really respect their women. So rape rarely happens. It’s more important to vote; even if you run away, you have to come back again. It’s your country and you are the one who should decide what person you want in power.’

Sidi Sarro, 32, lives in Mombasa with her seven-month-old baby.

‘I wish I could vote but I am afraid to. I don’t want to experience what I did in the last elections. I am a single parent and if there is chaos like last time I am afraid I’ll have no one to protect me and my son. I am thinking of crossing over to Tanzania where I shall stay until the elections are over. I have relatives there and I’d rather go while I still can, because last time the borders had been closed. I was in Kajiado then and even though we were not directly affected by the violence which erupted, we could not get food or even go out.

‘I love my country and am patriotic but I am afraid for our safety. I pray and hope that there won’t be trouble, but I can’t take any chances. My son is the only one I have. I hope for a better Kenya for him.

‘I come from a family which has intermarried with other communities such as the Luo, Kamba, Kikuyu, Luhya, Swahili, Mijikenda, Taita and even Italians and Germans. My son is Kisii so I believe my family represents most of the major tribes in Kenya. Even my grandparents intermarried; we are a rainbow family. How then, can I sit and watch should we turn against each other?

‘Actually, I don’t know which tribe my family is except that we are Kenyans. For this reason, for my family, my son and our safety, I will leave – even if it means not voting.

‘Yes, I am running away... maybe I am a coward, but it is better to be safe than sorry.’

Join us for our live blog ‘Kenya Votes’, during the presidential polls on 4 March 2013. We will be working with Radar and citizen journalists reporting on events from all over the country, via SMS.

Subscribe   Ethical Shop