I recently returned from Kitenga, Tanzania, where our organization, Girls Education Collaborative (GEC), is working with a community-led initiative to create more opportunities for girls through education. Days after returning to the US, I turned around to leave for Washington, DC to participate in the first US Summit to End Violence Against Girls.
While in Kitenga, we celebrated the culmination of the work our organization had done in collaboration with the Immaculate Heart Sisters of Africa to finally open a school for girls. The Kitenga School for Girls will launch its phased opening in January for seventy-five secondary students. While I was there in November, there was a six-week ‘prep program’ underway. At full vision, the residential school will nurture and educate 1,500 students in K-Secondary. The celebration of the school’s opening was clouded by the fact that we were ending our trip just as “circumcision season” was starting amongst the local Kurya tribe. I am referring to female genital cutting, or if we dare to be more bold and true, female genital mutilation.
Instead of using the word mutilation, the people in this area of Tanzania call it circumcision. They do so because it is tradition, and because they believe a girl will not be fit for marriage unless she has lost this part of herself.
I left Tanzania knowing that there were still so many girls out there who were not ensconced on the new campus who would now face this fate. Excitement and pride over helping to build and open this school, and fear for the safety of other girls in the region fed into a determination to get back to work and grow the school, grow opportunity and grow the numbers of girls who could be learning and thriving and preparing for a destiny of their choice, rather than being mutilated and/or bartered into marriage for cows, another common practice in the region.
The first US Summit to End Violence Against Girls was an international gathering of over 200 participants to end the destructive cultural tradition of Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C). Many attendees were survivors of this practice. There were advocates, educators, law enforcement and government officials, story-tellers, and folks like me, working at the grassroots level to help communities abandon this way of life and allow girls the chance to become women, the chance at an education, and the chance to develop her personal agency.
Our thanks to the Wallace Global Fund for convening this timely and important gathering around this imperative issue, and convening a wonderfully diverse and global community who, together, are fighting every day to see this tradition become history in this generation.
It was at the summit that we heard from change leaders across Africa. From Guinea, Dr. Morissanda Kouyate, Executive Director of Inter-African Committee on Harmful Practices, proclaimed, “As an African, we say, go ahead and use the word ‘mutilation.’ ‘Cutting’ is a word trying not to offend.”
US Senator Harry Reid was a distinguished guest at the summit. He has been an advocate on this issue for over twenty years, working to bring women’s issues into foreign policy. The lack of progress the US government has made in stopping this violence against girls profoundly disappoints him. “If this is not a human rights issue, what is?” he asked. I agree with Reid on this statement, but he then lamented the lack of engagement by religious institutions fighting for the end of FGM/C.
There, I must disagree. GEC is working in the Mara Region of Tanzania. There it is indeed the religious leaders, working collaboratively, to educate the community and lead them towards abandoning both FGM and early marriage. Our partners in Kitenga, The Immaculate Heart Sisters of Africa, in hand with both the Catholic and Anglican Dioceses are in the trenches on this issue – they work with law enforcement, convene community discussions, and create safe spaces for girls.
The US Ambassador to Global Women’s Issues, Catherine Russel, called us to raise our voices so others hear, as “The silence is often deafening.”
Representing the United Nations, Lakshimi Puri, Assistant Secretary-General, talked about how “Harmful practices cannot be addressed in isolation. There must be a holistic and comprehensive approach with a focus on prevention.”
Christine Nanjula, Associate Director of Public Prosecutions in Kenya, echoed, “Multi-sectoral approaches are required,” and that we cannot “Prosecute our ways out of this. The answer is education, education, education.”
GEC is in total alignment with this prescriptive advice – we were founded on those same principals and values. Comprehensive and holistic approaches are critical to fully equipping a girl so that she may develop her agency and navigate her future. Hence, our tag line: ‘The whole girl. The whole world!” We join Ban Ki-Moon in his public declaration that “We cannot stop until every girl is safe.”
I ended the day in awe of what individuals in the room had accomplished, and sacrificed, to champion this cause. I felt honored that survivors trusted the group to share their stories. I welcomed the very frank and open conversations about issues often tabooed. I applaud the men who proudly stood to demonstrate their willingness to lead other men to stop this violation against children. I cried when the young actors re-created painful stories demonstrative of what so many girls have suffered, and continue to suffer 6,000 times a day.
There are currently girls that were spared ‘circumcision’ because they are safely enrolled at the Kitenga School for Girls during cutting season, and I know that there will be many more. With time, we will gain greater knowledge of the best away to support them, their families and their communities during this time of transition. We cannot stop female genital mutilation alone, but after working with the Kitenga community, and learning from global leaders in the fight, I am confident that together, we will.