Hope Foundation for African Women (HFAW) is an international not-for-profit organisation working with rural communities to reduce gender inequalities through economic empowerment, gender advocacy with FGM as a priority, promoting sexual, reproductive health and advancing human rights in Kenya through Popular Education Model.
When Grace Okong’o founded Hope Foundation for African Women (HFAW), she envisioned communities that would respect women and encourage their participation in decision making processes. Grace saw the potential of empowering women at the grassroots to end female genital mutilation (FGM). The work she and her organisation does involves encouraging community mobilisation and activism by giving women skills and a platform to address issues that impact them.
Her desire to empower women to be agents of change within their communities stems from her own experience living in rural Kenya. She reflected on the own challenges she faced and now she is dedicated to transform women’s lives in Kenyan communities.
In 2010, Grace attended an international training course on Popular Education* in Health offered by Educacion Popular En Salud (EPES), a non-profit foundation in Santiago, Chile, that has been effectively mobilising communities and inspiring activism since 1982. She saw how the key components of the model, which focused around participatory and community engagement, could be reflected in Kenyan communities that were impacted by high rates of FGM.
Inspired by the training in Chile, Grace, who had been living in the USA at the time, moved back to Kenya and founded HFAW in 2011. The organisation works with rural communities to achieve gender equality through economic empowerment, gender advocacy with FGM as a priority, promotion of sexual and reproductive health, and by advancing human rights.
Understanding the value of the training she had, Grace took six women from Kenya to the popular education training in Chile in 2014. This sparked an immediate domino effect of shared learning and training in Kenya. The women used the model to end FGM in the Kissii community. After the clear success and significant impact that the model had on reducing FGM in Kenyan communities, HFAW has trained more than 30 end FGM advocates who, on a day to day basis, have managed to reach many different members of the communities. Students, parents, teachers, community leaders and traditional cutters have all participated in HFAW’s training and end FGM messages.
Although recent reports have shown an overall decrease of FGM being practiced in Kenya, in some counties, the prevalence is still alarmingly high. According to the Kenya Demographic and Health Survey for 2014, prevalence rates are 84.4% in Kisii and Nyamira counties. With the help of The Girl Generation’s Grassroots Fund, HFAW has facilitated training sessions in five sub-counties: Manga, Nyamira South, Nyamira North, Borabu and Masaba North, to engage trainees on methods to effectively communicate end FGM messages.
“I did not circumcise my girls and now they are married and have children, I am a grandmother!”, exclaimed Jerusha Momanyi, the HFAW County Women Representative in Kisii, Kenya, at a HFAW training session held in March of this year.
During various training sessions, HFAW met with leading community health and human rights promoters who shared their experiences working in their local areas. They highlighted some of the factors that drive FGM in their communities and demystified common local myths and misconceptions about FGM. Former cutters used these training sessions as a platform to share their own experiences. One such former cutter, Hope*, said:
“I used to be a circumciser, but I stopped after I realised the health consequences FGM poses through the education I got”.
Another attendee, Janet**, shared her experience of receiving the economic empowerment training saying:
“I have a daughter and I have not circumcised her and I never will. Through the training we had, I have learnt to be a responsible woman and am also well aware of my rights as a woman. For example, the business I have helps me also support my husband in other areas in the home. I now have money such that if my husband is short off, I can lend him but he has to return the money.”
To empower more women like Janet, HFAW has implemented impactful holistic economic empowerment activities (such as livestock keeping, vegetable farming and brick making). HFAW also provides small-scale loans with lower interest rates to group members who guarantee each other, encouraging economic independence for these women.
HFAW also works with schools to speak about FGM and to facilitate dialogue with teachers and school children. HFAW met with two youth leaders who had undergone HFAW’s training on ending FGM using Popular Education and Social Change Communication tools. Joash** said, “had I known earlier I would have stopped my sister from being circumcised.” By participating in the training, he became aware of the issues surrounding FGM and is now sharing end FGM messages to help people to understand the consequences.
Another student, Joy**, shared that she took the information that she had learnt in one of the training sessions back to her family and it was well received. She concluded:
“If I am to turn back the hands of time, I would never be circumcised with the knowledge I now have. Since, it is already done, I take up the duty to educate others about FGM.”
Both students have demonstrated that the work is not easy, as they meet with resistance from others who claim FGM is an important part of their culture, but this doesn’t deter them in their campaign. With participatory collective community engagement as well as training from organisations like HFAW, more people like Joash and Hope would be able to effectively advocate for change and deter people from cutting their girls.
HFAW’s firm belief in encouraging community participation and empowering women as agents of change deeply reflects The Girl Generation’s own values. Grassroots organisations and members of the communities must be empowered by enhancing their capabilities. HFAW’s training has helped women to realise their strength: more and more women and girls are understanding their rights and becoming equal participants in their communities, advocating on issues that impact them. With the clear success of the training model, a future free from FGM seems possible.
Many thanks to Bettina Shell-Duncan, Lead Researcher on the DFID-funded End FGM/C Research Programme, who recently shared with us her experiences of visiting HFAW.
The Girl Generation’s End FGM Grassroots Fund supports local grassroots organisations in some of the countries most affected by FGM. We believe that their local connections, insight and influence mean they are best placed to spark the social changes required for FGM to end. Find out more about what the fund has been able to achieve.
*Popular Education model entails critical conscious raising, participatory strategies and collective action to foster sustainable development, and enabling women to become equal participants in their families and communities.
**Names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals