Men at the forefront of fight against harmful practices
While many men are responsible for deep-rooted gender inequalities and violence, few have taken the bold step to bridge the gap. Harriet James shines the spotlight on them
One hot afternoon, in 2008, Douglas Meritei, 33, from Kajiado county made a life-changing decision. He became an advocate against Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), a traditional practice involvings cutting or removal of female external genitalia.
“I started this fight in 2008 when Amref came to our village and revealed to us the side effects of the horrible practice. That’s what inspired me to stop supporting it and to train as a peer educator to fellow morans who still uphold it,” Douglas narrates.
When he was circumcised, Douglas spent his days in isolation in the bush, learning tribal customs and developing courage and endurance, traits required in adulthood. Masaais are a proud community who have managed to safeguard and cling to their customs and traditions despite modernisation and the spread of western culture.
One of the customs they have to safeguard is FGM, which conferred status on Masaai girls. Men are not permitted to marry uncut women. She would also not be required to join significant cultural feasts and their children, too, will be deemed illegitimate. It is also believed an uncut woman has sexual desire for every man she comes across and is likely to cheat on her man. Hence, FGM is seen as a tool of preventing the spread of HIV in the community.
Even educated Masaai men and women still favour the practice as they fear repercussions should they say no to it. All this was what Douglas believed about FGM before his conversion.
One knife would be employed to cut several girls posing a risk of getting infected with HIV/Aids. The young girl might also be at risk of getting infections, difficulty in childbirth later in life and bleeding to death during the event. These are some of the dangers Douglas learnt about and took the course of spreading the gospel against FGM to elders and morans.
At first, he faced resistance as they were adamant in maintaining their firmly held traditions. But by slowly showing them the benefits of abolishing the practice, Douglas is slowly winning their hearts. So far, he has converted 30 morans.
In 2010, Douglas fell in love and got married to Anne Meritei who did not undergo the cut. In the past, the chance for Anne finding a potential mate would have been nil as she would still be regarded as a child and both of them would have been isolated from the community. Lucky for Anne, her father is one of the Masaai elders who embraced the wave of change and refused to have her circumcised. Douglas feels that this move has made him earn more respect in the community as he is walking the talk and defying what people deemed as a taboo and being awarded for his stand.
“They took me as a role model in the community; I even received a champion for change award at the University of Nairobi. The award is a collaboration between Kenya and Americans in partnership to fight HIV/Aids,” he says.
When it comes to menstrual health management, few men have embraced and appreciated the need to support it. Most of them shy off from talking about it, but not Tom Isaac Makisa, a young Kenyan inspired by this silence to start an organisation called Welfare of children and Youth (WCY) in 2012 to advocate for child rights youth development, reproductive health rights and gender equality.
No support from men
“In 2008, after post-election violence, the Ministry of Youth identified few leaders countrywide to develop a situation analysis report. The results indicated most girls were affected, became more vulnerable, couldn’t access equal opportunities and services, lacked adequate and appropriate health services and inadequate access to sanitary towels,” he says.
That’s how the organisation began a “girls reach out” programme, where they identified few girls to benefit from mentorship and get sanitary pads. Consequently, the need grew to providing reproductive health education.
“We reached out to few partners for support and something that began as a yearly activity turned to be a monthly one. We identified risks and prone areas, especially in Eastlands, where we have initiated an empowerment programme with both boys and girls. Through sports, acrobatics, theatre, dance, music and art, focused group discussion, healthy talks and debate, we sensitise the community and educate them on hygiene and menstrual health management. We also train them on the role of boys and men in menstruation as well as reproductive health rights,” Tom says.
Even with that determination to ensure that the girl child is empowered, Tom still faces challenges. Most men have a negative perception towards his work and label him as being too considerate on women issues. “I don’t get support or full cooperation from fellow men who have a negative perception on girl empowerment. I believe this is because of inappropriate education and many misconceptions they have on reproductive health services,” he observes.
Adrian Wangatiah, a case officer at Centre for Rights Education and Awareness- CREAW, says men hinder reproductive health through traditions and culture. “Having worked in a field that focuses on women empowerment, I encounter men who, through ignorance and culture, don’t see the need to promote and protect women. For instance, some men don’t understand women’s biological anatomy and how important it is for them to get frequent checkups. Their ego, too, gets in the way and they can’t accompany her for checkups. In many traditions, women can’t share their reproductive health with their husbands, as it is a taboo. There is lack of awareness and information on sexual reproductive health,” he notes.
Adrian also observes that in some cultures, women have no voice in regards to family planning as their main role is to produce babies. Family planning is still regarded as a female thing and most men wouldn’t do anything to intervene in such matters.
“Girls as young as 13 can be married off. They stop schooling to become parents. Men ought to be taught to be actively engaged in matters of sexual reproductive health. A supportive environment that won’t create stigma should be created in hospitals and clinics for those ready to participate,” says Adrian.
Meshack Acholla from Evidence for Action Mama says studies indicate sexual debut in Kenya is around 10 years for girls and about 16 years for boys. Adolescent girls tend to experience sex with older boys or men than with their peers. “Adolescent girls and boys lack basic education and knowledge on sexual reproduction health and rights. This then exposes them to early unplanned pregnancy,” he observes, saying such issues can be addressed through introducing age-appropriate comprehensive sexuality education.
“This would give both boys and girls knowledge and improve their health-seeking behaviour. County governments should also offer quality health services to all, including access to contraceptives and counselling to sexually active girls and boys,” he advises.
Together with Pastor Benedict Muia Mutuku, Adrian also works in an organisation, Champions For Male Family Planning In Kenya. The organisation began in 2012 after they saw how men do not support family planning and don’t accompany their wives during pre and post-delivery as it is regarded a woman’s role.
“We wanted to make men responsible and support their wives. We noted that women used to talk their pills in secret without their husband’s knowledge. Once men understand their role, they become more supportive and families live in peace,” says Benedict
They began with 30 men and have seen an increase of 6,000 men in Bungoma, Malindi, Turkana and Nairobi.