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Nothing to Lose

Lillian Noeli
July 3, 2020
Adult literacy group in rural Nepal.  Economic and educational programs are increasingly endorsed to promote "women's empowerment" in the Global South, but do they deliver on their promise?

This is the most uncertain season we have ever experienced. The pandemic brings so much uncertainty countrywide. In Tiaty Constituency, in the Eastern part of Baringo County, Kenya, the normal fabric of life has been completely fractured: markets are closed, food importation systems are slow or broken, transport is challenging and expensive, children have been sent home from school. There's been a long period of drought in the region, meaning food can't be grown locally. Informal employment has been decimated and food prices are skyrocketing. There are no social safety nets. This means that poverty and famine are perceived as a greater threat to life than COVID-19 right now.

The situation for women and girls is as complex as it is devastating. Pre-existing social vulnerabilities are exacerbated in the current crisis. I live in a Pokot community that struggles to achieve gender equality; here, girls and women are now at a higher risk of some retrogressive cultures and gender-based violence. Because of the lockdown and closure of major amenities like mobile clinics, churches and schools, girls and women are left in the hands of their so called perpetrators, and are at risk of increased injustices to their basic human rights.

In many disasters, women and girls are at heightened risk. They may be employed in more precarious labour, which is lost. They may be dependent on their husbands or male family members for money. They may be the last to eat at a meal. They may be at risk of violence whilst being locked-down with their abuser. Adolescent girls are particularly at risk - they may be at risk of forced marriage as a result of family deals in response to poverty and famine. They may be at heightened risk of female genital mutilation (girls use boarding school as a way to 'escape' their community's practices, and now schools are closed they are at ever present risk). In my village for instance, the local primary and secondary schools which for over a long period of time has been acting as main centers for protecting our girls from forced child marriages and female genital mutilation (FGM), has been closed indefinitely. This has further put our girls at a higher risk of being married off secretly or face FGM with no one to rescue or stop their offenders from this jeopardy. Sadly, no one knows when things will normalize again. 

Having being in the forefront for fighting for equal education and strongly condemning FGM in my local Pokot community, the schools were my main points for monitoring and following up the safety and progress of the girls, most especially the rescued girls from FGM. The current situation has proven more challenging to carry out my routine campaigns and community dialogues as no gatherings and assemblies are tolerable for now. 

Based on 2017 UNICEF report, the prevalence of FGM in Pokot stands at 74 per cent. This has been a major contributor to the high cases of maternal and child deaths within the region. A recent study revealed how women who have undergone FGM will develop complications, often when giving birth, which can be fatal or debilitating. Although criminalized under the prohibition of FGM Act of 2011, it is still practiced secretly away from the eyes of security agencies. It is very important to note that majority of young women aged 10 – 17 years are forcefully circumcised and later married off to older men in exchange of cattle as bride price, hindering their access to education and other development in life. Astonishingly, the practice is still widespread in the region because of its perceived cultural importance. Many families believe that every girl must undergo FGM as a compulsory rite of passage, with the aim of transiting girls from childhood to womanhood. I am left to wonder, what will tradition lose if girls are not cut? 

In a nutshell, the onset of rainy season marks the beginning for preparations of carrying out FGM. The rains are blessings as the community will have enough water and pasture for their cattle. Meanwhile, because of the lockdown, we know that many more girls are at risk of GBV and FGM and we are left wondering about how the structural changes as a result of the pandemic will impact them. Agonizingly, we cannot perform our normal activities to prevent FGM and GBV, and raise healthy future women leaders. In my community, the women are sole breadwinners who are supposed to carry out odd jobs in order to feed the family. You can all imagine what happens in a scenario where this isn’t possible. 

There is always hope at the end of the tunnel. I look forward into better tomorrow. Time to elevate our girls beyond their limits. Time to champion for better treatment of all boys and girls in this community. Time to advocate for proper treatment of both genders. Time to appreciate the existence of humanity among ourselves and time to rejoice at every single achievement regardless of being considered as a marginalized community! I can visualize that time. All dreams are valid. 

Lastly, can we please continue keeping safe from Corona Virus, wash our hands with soap and running water and sanitize. United we stand, apart we fall. 


Lillian Noeli is the founder of Sauti Dada Africa, a community based organisation that fights against Female Genital Mutilation, Child Marriages and other harmful traditional practices that affect the life of a Pokot girl child. Their aim is to create a safe environment that enable girls to strive and achieve their dreams. Education is our major tool for change.