Adapting in emergencieis: A promising practice for ending FGM in Kenya


Everlyne Komba, Gender, Governance and Development Expert, Nairobi, Kenya

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During a humanitarian crises, conflict and disasters, state and social structures such as legal systems and protective mechanisms are weakened, making Sexual Gender Bases Violence and Harmful Traditional Practices even more likely to occur as a result of breakdown of legal and safety services in conflict, post conflict and humanitarian crisis settings with serious underreporting of cases. Similarly, education is generally the first service interrupted and the last resumed in conflict/humanitarian crisis situations. The aspect of mental health is another important factor that comes into play during a humanitarian crisis and emergency situations such as COVID-19 global pandemic. Furthermore, studies have shown that policies and public health efforts have not adequately addressed the gendered impacts of disease outbreaks[1] . This is not any different in the response to the novel coronavirus disease 2019[2] an ongoing global pandemic. Governments are often overwhelmed by the needs and relief aid traditionally focuses on populations’ basic requirements – food, water, shelter and protection.

However in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, a promising practice has emerged. As schools in Kenya closed down, a teacher in one school in Kajiado County, Kenya went against the grain and continued to provide education to pupils through the WhatsApp platform. The teacher formed a WhatsApp group for his pupils using their parents’ android phones. Through this medium, the teacher has been giving lessons and providing assignments. The teacher went even further by conducting personal home visits to the respective pupils homestead while observing social distancing rules. Parents interviewed said to appreciate the practice. Although the teacher lamented using his own personal resources such as buying data bundles to enable him communicate lessons and assignments, the intervention had a lot of buy in.

The determination of the teacher provides a glimpse into what could with a few tweaks, become a promising anti-FGM intervention. The practice of FGM is normally targeted at school going girls, with ceremonies especially planned to coincide with holiday breaks. In the current situation, COVID-19 occasioned the early closure of schools alongside safety and protective services such as courts and government offices, which has created a vacuum. Therefore the teacher’s singular act to continue with classes through WhatsApp may have been the saving grace that stalled any plans at cutting and marrying off girls in transactional marriages to sustain families as they seek to survive the COVID-19 pandemic.

How can this Innovative solution work?

First, education still remains by far the most universally accepted medium for social advancement among all communities in Kenya with the girl child’s education receiving even greater attention. This comes with a critical mass of teachers. Second, Kenya has had longstanding digital education ambitions which remain unfulfilled. However, some recent developments such as the launching of Google loon is expected to further deepen mobile internet penetration in remote areas of Kenya. Third, it provides a platform for proactive surveillance capabilities rather than reactive measures currently in use. Fourth, it can provide an early warning system for girls at risk.

All these factors put together, a hitherto unseen opportunity for anti-FGM Campaigners and policy makers comes into play. Together they present a significant opportunity for retooling the fight against FGM. A digital education platform offers the chance to make learning a continuous affair whether schools are in session or not and therefore keep more girls in school and improve their transition rates. Secondly, the approach comes with a wealth of human resources that is teachers who not only engage in their profession, but are also familiar with pupils. Thirdly, the learning devices create useful electronic footprints which can be useful any circumstance. Fourthly, the devices can come with a protection function that can alert authorities that in case something is wrong. There is need therefore for anti-FGM campaigners to consider engaging with teachers, researchers, Anti-FGM campaigners, protection services and technology companies to develop a single innovative solution.

In the last five years in Kenya a number of similar initiatives have emerged, from which we can get inspiration to move forward in this direction.

In 2017, a group of Kenyan teenagers have created an app called i-Cut to help girls affected by Female Genital Mutilation to get legal and medical assistance. Girls who are forced to undergo the procedure can also alert local authorities by pressing a panic button on the app, or can seek shelter by pressing the Rescue Centers’ button.

Other recent innovations are based on an Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD) platforms. One such solution called TIKO is intended to support adolescents to take control of their reproductive health by putting information and services within their reach. Locally relevant, it is accessible on the most basic phones and to non-phone users through a membership card. In just 2 years, this programme has allowed over 300,000 girls to access free contraceptive and HIV services in Kenya, contributing to the ambitious goals of the Ministry of Health.

Another great existing initiative is the M-Shule, the first adaptive, mobile learning management platform which connects learners with tailored tutoring, training, assessments, and data through SMS. This makes education accessible to a greater number of people.

Whereas there is no shortage of digital innovations, the foregoing points to the need to interlink anti-FGM efforts and education outcomes and or programmes, specifically during periods of instability within humanitarian crises. By reducing traditional reliance on person-to-person communication, mobile technology can allow girls to get education, and at the same time to learn about risks, make decisions and reach services while minimizing their risk of exposure. As the fourth industrial revolution beckons, anti-FGM efforts require non-traditional solutions that can complement existing social strategies for efficiency and maximized impact.

[1] Smith J. 2019. Overcoming the “tyranny of the urgent”: integrating gender into disease outbreak preparedness and response. Gender Develop 2019; 27: 355–69.

[2] WHO 2020. Naming the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) and the virus that causes it.