What you need to know:
- Thriving Communities Africa and the United Nations Population Fund designed and rolled out the initiative to empower young men as champions and agents in fostering transformative change.
- The champions are trained and equipped to support women’s and girls’ rights, and sensitise their communities to the consequences of gender-based violence, among other harmful practices.
On this bright sunny morning, we embark on a journey from Kabarnet town, the headquarters of Baringo County, to a village deep inside the county.
The time is 11.30am when we leave for Lemalok village in Baringo South, about 45 kilometres away. We pass through Marigat town, which is a hive of activity, as traders eye clients to buy their products.
Most traders here sell honey and mangoes. Bee keeping and mango farming are the main economic activities residents, besides livestock farming. About three kilometres from Marigat town, we branch off to a rough road, which leads to Lemalok village, where we seek to meet with a group of male champions leading the fight against harmful practices, including female genital mutilation and child marriage, among the Ilichamus.
The rough road suddenly ends and we have to rely on our local guide to show us the way to the village. We are literally passing through a dry area that is sparsely populated. The effects of ongoing drought are evident here.
We meander through the bush as we try to get a place where our vehicle can pass. The area is dry; even trees are drying up. Our local guide tells us the last time the area had some rainfall was more than a year ago. The rains pounding some parts of the country have not been witnessed here.
After about seven-kilometre drive, we arrive at our destination. A group of women welcomes us using a song in Ilichamus language. The song, we later learn, is used to welcome visitors. They escort us to nearby trees where we find a group of young men having a conversation as they shield themselves from the scorching sun.
This is where the male champions, under the leadership of Felix Ledaa, usually meet to plan their activities. The Nitasimama Imara Young Male Gender Equality Champions, as they are commonly known here, is the brainchild of the Thriving Communities Africa (TCA) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).
Agents of change
The two organisations designed and rolled out the initiative to empower young men as champions and agents in fostering transformative change by ending negative social, gender and cultural norms. The champions are trained and equipped to support women’s and girls’ rights, and sensitise their communities to the consequences of gender-based violence (GBV) and harmful practices, among them FGM and child marriage.
The Nitasimama Imara programme targets males aged 10 and above for empowerment. Nitasimama Imara is a Swahili phrase meaning ‘I will stand firm’ and is a self- affirmation and commitment by the champions to promote gender equality and women empowerment.
Through the programme, UNFPA and TCA have trained 90 male champions, 30 each from Baringo, Elgeyo Marakwet and West-Pokot. These are some of the 22 FGM hotspot counties. Baringo has 62 per cent FGM prevalence rate. The practice is widely believed to increase a girl's chances of marriage, prevent promiscuity and promote easy childbirth. Women who do not circumcise their daughters here are seen as irresponsible, immoral and imitators of the western culture.
Mr Ledaa says they have been trained and equipped as gender equality champions. “We have been sensitising the community to the consequences of GBV and harmful practices like FGM and child marriage. We are working closely with community leaders to support surveillance, reporting and referral of GBV/FGM cases.”
He adds that their campaign is also seeking to change the culture of the Ilichumus, specifically on men not marrying girls who have not undergone the cut. “We are happy that our campaign is bearing fruit and helping to fight the stigma that has been associated with marrying girls who have not undergone FGM. Men now have no issue marrying girls who have not been cut. This is going a long way in helping tame the vice.”
To ensure the programme bear maximum results, they have been working closely with the county government departments of gender, health and education, as well as local schools, on prevention of and response to GBV, FGM and child marriage.
Kolem Ruto says seeing the culture change as a result of their campaign has been his greatest joy. “In the past, men were being forced to only marry women who are cut. This saw women their daughters to undergo the cut so that they could find husbands. We are now telling them we are in modern times and change is inevitable.”
He observes that men have a major role to play in the fight against harmful practices, adding that they have also been using sports to educate young men on the importance of the fight against GBV.
“When men say no to FGM and child marriage, that will be the end of it. They are the biggest perpetrators of GBV and there is a need to sensitise them to the dangers of these harmful practices.”
Mr Ruto says the training has changed his perception of women and made him learn to appreciate them.
UNFPA country director Anders Thomsen notes that young men are valuable allies in changing socio-cultural norms and attitudes and getting messages out to their peers and other men on the devastating effects of harmful practices.
“Nitasimama Imara is an initiative that aims to empower young men and boys in promoting gender equality and eliminating discriminatory practices against women and girls. UNFPA has supported Thriving Communities Africa to roll out the project in Elgeyo Marakwet, West Pokot and Baringo, as part of our overall strategy on engaging men and boys,” he said.
The UNFPA-Kenya boss reveals the programme equips young men to serve as gender champions by taking actions that advance gender equality in their communities such as discouraging FGM and child marriage, promoting girls’ education, fostering equitable relationships and households, and supporting women’s reproductive health and rights.
He adds that the project also trains young men in the prevention of and response to GBV by building a network of male champions to act as agents of change.
Rongai Leakwara, a leading Ilchamus gender champion, is a happy woman. She says the male champions programme has been instrumental in enlightening the community on harmful practices. “The male champions are godsend. Their campaign is helping lower cases of FGM, child marriages and other harmful practices.”
The award-winning gender champion, however, notes the need for a rescue centre in the county to host survivors or girls at high risk of GBV.
To have maximum impact, the champions have been visiting schools to enlighten learners on the dangers of GBV. They have also been holding public barazas in different constituencies.
Ng’ambo location chief Simon Risoi is attending today’s meeting convened by the champions. The administrator says the male champions are playing a vital role in helping tame the harmful practices. He further attributes a drop in FGM and child marriage to the strict application of the law.
“Education has helped to bring down harmful practices in the area. Many girls are now at school, unlike in the past when they remained at home to do domestic chores and graze their fathers’ cattle. They were more prone to these vices.”
Mr Risoi, however, notes that they have been grappling with cases of teenage pregnancies and rising cases of GBV mostly due to alcoholism and high poverty rates. He commends UNFPA and TCA for empowering the male champions through training.