Female Genital Mutilation in Kenya: a call to action for the sewing community

Cast your eye upon these glorious colours worn by a group of Maasai women I met in Kenya recently! I travelled there with a group of my university students to learn more about the cultural tradition of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM; also sometimes referred to as Female Genital Cutting or FGC), and to meet young residents of a slum in the capital city Nairobi. What an experience!

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One of our goals on this trip, in partnership with AMREF Canada (African Medical Research and Education Foundation), was to shoot a short documentary about AMREF’s efforts to help phase out Female Genital Mutilation in rural Kenyan communities. My students are studying media production, so this was an opportunity for them to put the professional skills they’re learning into practice while finding out about international development issues and immersing themselves in a different culture. And guess what? There’s even a sewing angle to all of this, so stay tuned! And guess what else? I’m going to ask you to make a donation to a great cause if you can, so be warned!

If you haven’t heard of FGM before, it’s a long-standing tradition in certain communities of ‘circumcising’ a girl to mark her passage from girlhood to womanhood. FGM involves partial or total removal of the external genitalia (the clitoris and labia). While the practice is technically illegal in Kenya, it is such a deep-rooted tradition in some communities that many families consider a girl to be unclean and unfit for marriage if she has not been cut. There is a belief that uncut women cannot be thought of as real women, and that they are likely to be unfaithful in their marriage. FGM, particularly in rural areas, is performed without anaesthetic in unsanitary conditions, sometimes even using cow dung to staunch the bleeding. The procedure causes excruciating pain, and girls can die of loss of blood or infection. We spoke with several girls and women who knew someone who died because of the procedure. They described to us in vivid detail how village men are needed to hold ropes attached to the girls’ legs and arms to keep them completely immobile and unable to run away during the procedure. FGM can also cause sexual dysfunction, complications in childbirth, and greatly increases a woman’s risk of HIV infection. It is generally carried out on adolescent girls as young as 8 years old. Once a girl is cut, she is considered ready for marriage and usually must also stop attending school. For obvious reasons, FGM is considered to be a violation of human rights.

That’s a lot to process — I know. A real-life horror show.

The United Nations Population Fund has an FAQ about Female Genital Mutilation here.

So on to the good news: AMREF is working hard to implement “Alternative Rites of Passage” (ARP), whereby the girls still go through a ceremony to mark their passage to womanhood, but without being cut. In order for this to happen, AMREF must ensure everyone including the village chiefs (men) and the young men who would marry the young women understand the risks and outcomes and agree to stop the practice. AMREF does this through education, as well as providing training to the elder women who normally earn a living performing circumcisions. These women are retrained to become traditional birth attendants, so they can continue to earn a living but also contribute to healthy outcomes for girls and women. In place of the cut, the girls attend two or three days of sexual and reproductive health education as well as instruction on why they should stay in school and pursue an education.

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Over 10 thousand girls in Africa have been through AMREF’s ARP program…that means over 10 thousand girls who have not had to endure the cut. Bravo, AMREF!

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Above is Beverly (18 years old) and her uncle Lelein. Beverly was expected by her parents to undergo FGM, but when the time came, she ran away. Girls who refuse FGM or run away can be beaten and/or ostracized from their family and community. Luckily for Beverly, her uncle Lelein was sympathetic and took her in. She is still estranged from her father who believes she must be cut. But Beverly has now finished high school and hopes to be able to attend university to study law. We sat in on a talk she gave to a class of high school girls to encourage them to believe in themselves and finish their education. She is quite an inspiration.

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That’s me with some women from a village called Oldonyonyoki. The woman in the centre used to perform the circumcisions, but these women and their village elders have embraced AMREF’s Alternative Rites of Passage so their girls will no longer be forced to endure FGM. And look at that amazing traditional Maasai beadwork the women have created. (Oh, and since you’re normally here to read about sewing and DIY, I’m wearing a dress I decided I HAD to make a couple of days before the trip using McCall’s 5890. Why do I put myself through that stress just before a big trip? Do you do that, too?)

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Beautiful Maasai woman

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In the village of Oldonyonyoki, a traditional Maasai homestead or ‘boma’

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My students shooting an interview with a former circumciser

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Thanks to AMREF and the work of her village elders, this lucky baby girl won’t have to face FGM!

Would you support AMREF’s amazing work in helping to eradicate Female Genital Mutilation? Please visit my donor page to make a donation to AMREF. I wouldn’t ask you if I hadn’t seen for myself how effective AMREF has been at tackling this massive issue…not only are they saving girls from FGM but so many more girls are staying in school, which makes them better able to care for their families and better contributors to their society. The Alternative Rites of Passage program is making a real, tangible difference not only in the lives of these girls but also for their entire communities. What a great cause. I’ve seen how the sewing community can rally around a great cause before and I’m hoping I can fire us up for this one. 🙂

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Some of my students and the villagers of Oldonyonyoki

At the risk of being frivolous (a-hem) after all that, here’s a better look at the dress I made from McCall’s 5890, View E, using a cotton jersey knit I had in my stash. We were told before our trip that we’d need to dress somewhat conservatively , so no mini skirts or shorts. This midi-length dress isn’t what I’d choose to wear normally, but it was the right amount of cover and loose enough to be perfect in the Kenyan heat.

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I have so much more to share with you, including our time spent at AMREF’s drop-in centre for street kids in the Dagoretti slum of Nairobi — where kids can learn, among other things, how to SEW! — plus pics from our weekend safari. That’s coming up in another post soon!

Thanks so much for reading. And please do consider making a donation to support AMREF if you can.

 

 

 

 

I Was Smiling the Whole Time

There’s no doubt we could use more reasons to smile lately. It’s been a while since I’ve knitted something that made me excited to plan, happy to knit, and gleeful to wear. But this neck warmer was just the ticket!

Happy sheep cowl neck warmer

This is the I’ll Pack a Cowl for Rhinebeck by Deb Jacullo. Pssst — it’s FREE! Another reason to smile.

Sheep neckwarmer cowl

I made a couple of modifications to the pattern. I made the cowl smaller in circumference by leaving off one of the sheep from the chart, and since the chart is repeated twice, that means the width of two sheep were left off the circumference. This resulted in a closer-fitting neck warmer which I much prefer — I’ve never understood the use of scarf or cowl that gapes open around your neck…but then again, I do have a serious hate-on for any kind of cool breeze getting anywhere near my neck. It was a 7-stitch wide sheep, so I just cast on 14 fewer stitches to start and went from there.

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Umm, those are snowflakes in my hair, not dandruff. Just sayin’.

I also made the neck warmer less tall by leaving off a few extra rows of ribbing at the top and bottom. If I did it again I would probably leave out some rounds below the sheep, as it’s still a bit too tall for me. Regardless, I feel happy whenever I’m sporting this cozy-cute thing! I highly recommend it as a pattern. And if you’re new to colour knitting, this is a great first project to give it a try. There are 4 colours in total but you only ever have to deal with two colours at a time in any given row, so it’s not terribly complex. It’s a great yarn stash busting project as well.

Here are a couple more things that make me happy: handmade knit socks. Watching the stripes and patterns develop makes them fun to knit, and wearing hand knit socks in winter is one of life’s great pleasures. Wool is naturally breathable like no other sock material I’ve ever tried, so it keeps you warm but if you do start to sweat you don’t get that horrible clammy feeling.

Basic Ribbed Socks pattern by Kate Atherley, knit with Regia sock yarn

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Basic Ribbed Socks pattern by Kate Atherley, knit with Turtlepurl Perfect Pair sock yarn

I must’ve knit myself about 8 pairs of socks in the last few years, and I’ve used this same Basic Ribbed Socks pattern by Kate Atherley every time. (More free pattern happiness!) Occasionally I think I should try another type of sock design but I’m so happy with the fit of these that I figure why mess with a good thing? But I must admit that a few patterns have  made me consider cheating on poor Ms Atherley, like these Dotty Knots Socks — because colour! Or these Watermelon Slice Socks — because, well, watermelon! Or these Nightingale socks — because, holy shit, drop-dead gorgeous show-stopping outrageousness! So many happy-making sock pattern choices.

Here’s another thing that’s making me happy: next week I am leaving for a trip to Kenya. I’m taking a group of my university students who will be producing a short documentary as well as content for a social media campaign for AMREF — the African Medical Research and Education Foundation. We’ll be visiting AMREF’s drop-in centre for kids from the Dagoretti slum of Nairobi, where at-risk kids can make art, learn media production, learn cooking, and learn SEWING! We’ll also be spending a week in a Maasai village learning about AMREF’s Alternative Rites of Passage project, which aims to phase out the dangerous (and illegal) tradition of female genital mutilation by helping girls, village elders, and the young men the girls might marry to understand the risks involved with FGM, and to implement new traditions for this rite of passage from girlhood to womanhood. Last week we were lucky enough to have a young woman from Kenya named Nice visit our class to tell her story. As an 8-year-old, she was scheduled to do her rite of passage, which involves having the clitoris and parts of or all of the labia removed without anaesthetic. She and her older sister ran away the morning of the ceremony, and were beaten when they were caught. Nice ran away again when the ceremony was rescheduled, and has been working with AMREF ever since to help spread the concept of an alternative rite of passage. Happily she has become a leader in her community and travels around the world to help raise awareness.

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Nice, third from left, and part of my team traveling to Kenya next week. Photo by Jennifer Foulds.

AMREF is doing amazing work and I’m so happy that my young students have an opportunity to learn about a completely different culture and have their perspectives and minds expanded. Open minds are another thing we could use more of these days, don’t you think?

I’m looking forward to telling you about my travels when I return. But beware, I’ll also be asking you to help support AMREF! I figure an organization that is providing sewing lessons to kids in need would be A-OK in your books, and worthy of support. Here’s a link to donate if you’re interested. AMREF is a registered charity and can provide tax receipts for your donation. http://www.amrefcanada.org/ryerson

What are the things that are making you happy these days?

Thanks so much for stopping by for a read!