Kwo-Kwop Boi, a men’s forum fighting harmful traditions

Elders form forum to fight FGM, early marriage

What you need to know:

  • Kwo-kwop boi is a Kalenjin term for a cultural site where men, both young and old, meet to discuss issues affecting them and the community at large.
  • Elders mentor young men into becoming responsible individuals who respect the rights of women and girls.

It’s a chilly morning as we set off for a short drive from Iten town to Kapkong’a village in Keiyo-North about 20 kilometres away.

We are to meet with Thomas Chepkiyeng, who is leading a unique programme involving elders and young men in Elgeyo Marakwet County.

Mr Chepkiyeng chairs Kwo-Kwop Boi Men’s Forum, through which elders mentor young men into becoming responsible members of society. During our short trip, we can’t help but admire the beautiful scenery.

The area is characterised by huge tracts of land, many of which are covered by drying maize crops. Most farms are a hive of activity as workers harvest their produce.

After about a 20-minute drive, we arrive at Mr Chepkiyeng’s homestead. It is 8.30am and we find him having breakfast. “Welcome home,” he says as he ushers into the sitting room of his four-room timber house.

Today is a busy day, he tells us. He, together with other elders, has a Kwo-Kwop Boi meeting where they will be engaging a group of young men from the village.

Kwo-kwop boi is a Kalenjin term for a cultural site where men, both young and old, meet to discuss issues affecting them and the community at large.

The elders guide the young men to become change agents, especially in the war on harmful practices like female genital mutilation (FGM), child marriage and domestic violence. This way, they respect, appreciate and empower women and girls.

The 52-year-old tells Nation.Africa that by being the custodians of culture, men have a major role to play in ending gender-based violence (GBV) and harmful practices.

“Kwo-Kwop Boi has been a tremendous programme through which we are talking to the young men about the importance of respecting and empowering women and girls. I am happy to note that through our discussions, things are changing and many are now marrying girls who are not cut to be their wives,” Mr Chepkiyeng says.

The young men in the programme come from the Keiyo and Marakwet sub-tribes. The elders’ goal, he says, is to see a community where both men and women live in harmony without any form of discrimination.

They also engage the men in socioeconomic activities like tree planting and seedling sale. He, however, notes that Kalenjin men are hardliners when it comes to culture but adds that with education, things are changing.

Mr Chepkiyeng is looking forward to mentoring more male champions to help drive the gender equality push. He says with the cases of men undergoing GBV being on the rise, the programme is also assisting such individuals speak up and get help.

Emmanuel Koech, a 20-year-old beneficiary of the programme, says it has been instrumental in moulding young men into more responsible people.

“The programme has been of much help to many young men. They are now free with their elders; this has helped them solve many challenges, including alcoholism and drug abuse,” he says.

The programme recently got a boost, after some of the young men underwent training through the Nitasimama Imara initiative, courtesy of UNFPA and Thriving Communities Africa (TCA). They covered sexual and reproductive health, life skills, family planning and self-awareness, among other key areas.

UNFPA Country Director Anders Thomsen notes that harmful practices like FGM and child marriage persist for various reasons, including cultural and economic factors. He says UNFPA is working with partners, including the government at the national and county levels, to address some of these factors and end the practice.

He says UNFPA has been adopting interventions that ensure the integration of FGM and child marriage in crisis response.

“Outreach to men as partners in realising gender equality initiatives is, therefore, part of UNFPA's human rights-based approach to programming, which integrates cultural sensitivity and gender equality. Studies and experience show that men can change when presented with evidence about the benefits of promoting and exercising gender equality,” says Mr Thomsen.

The UNFPA boss observes deeply ingrained ideas about manhood, however, prevent men from taking responsibility and becoming more involved in their own and their partners’ reproductive health.

He adds that crises such as the Covid-19 pandemic and the ongoing drought have disproportionately hurt girls and women, resulting in a shadow pandemic that has disrupted the fight against harmful practices. The UN agency is seeking the county government to strengthen policy within athletics training camps to tame rampant sexual violence against athletes.

Popularly referred to as the home of champions, Iten in Elgeyo Marakwet is revered as the gateway to greatness for both local and foreign athletes.

UNFP is also seeking the county to support the establishment of a sports academy to help in taming the high cases of GBV in the area, which is a major athletics hub. There have been reports that GBV, abortion and HIV/Aids cases prevalence are rampant in the training camps.

TCA chief executive Faith Nashipae says they decided to rope in men and boys in the fight against harmful practices after realising that they are the missing link in the crackdown on the vices.

Ms Nashipae tells Nation.Africa that they saw the Kwo-Kwop Boi County Forum as an appropriate avenue to channel their energies towards fighting harmful practices. She says she has been at the forefront of fighting for the boy child as men, being custodians of culture, are critical in fighting harmful traditions.

“This campaign seeks to cultivate positive masculinity for a better society. Men are the biggest perpetrators and violators of gender-based violence, which was the reason we needed to focus on them.”

Boys and men, she observes, have been sidelined in the GBV fight, despite being important players, a situation that has derailed the campaign. She is thankful to UNFPA for supporting the male engagement programme through financial and technical support.

Rite of passage

Through Nitasimama Imara, young male champions are empowered so that they can increase awareness of harmful practices. FGM is practised as a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood in this community, and is largely seen as a requirement for women and girls to be socially accepted.

Worrying trends show that girls are being circumcised at a young age, including during infancy. Child marriage has also been a challenge in the county. According to a 2017 Unicef study, 64 per cent of Pokot girls in Elgeyo Marakwet got married before reaching the age of 18.

The National Plan against Sexual Exploitation of Children in Kenya (2018-22) recognises child marriage as a harmful practice that contributes to child sexual abuse and exploitation. It envisions activities to engage men as community champions in reducing child marriage.

Peter Mwangi, another male champion in the programme, says the inter-generational dialogue between elders and young men has been instrumental in inculcating good values and morals.

“The boy child has lacked direction and identity and this inter-generational dialogue is helping to mentor and bring them back into the fold. Our elders are teaching us how to become responsible and good family men who respect their women,” he says.

County Gender director Joseph Amuke says the involvement of male champions has helped to accelerate the fight against GBV.

“Men are the greatest perpetrators of GBV and involving them to end the menace has been one of the best strategies that has been employed so far. It is bearing fruit, with cases of FGM and child marriage going down drastically,” says Mr Amuke.

He notes the fight to weed out harmful practices has not been without a challenge, citing the terrain as a major setback in their bid to get to FGM hotspots deep inside the Kerio Valley.

Mr Amuke adds that lack of a rescue centre in the county has made accommodating those rescued a problem. “The high poverty levels are largely driving the increase in GBV. The rampant alcoholism and drug abuse has also made things worse.”

The County Executive Committee Member in charge of Culture, Youth, Gender and Social Services, Ms Purity Koima, underscores the importance of bringing men on board in the fight against GBV, terming it instrumental in the realisation of gender equality.

She says the county government will support the Kwo-Kwop Boi initiative. “As a county, we are ready to support the initiative. We will be lobbying for funds to facilitate this noble initiative.”

The county official reveals that the devolved unit will consider making Mr Chepkiyeng the Kwo-Kwop Boi county ambassador to rally men and boys behind the fight against GBV.