The exemplary leader

Leadership is about vision and drive. Our country has many leaders but not all have purpose.

One of the few leaders with vision and drive is the iron lady Dennitah Ghati who is currently among the top most performing women leaders in Kenya. Long before she even started working as a member of parliament for Migori County, Dennitah had indulged in developmental projects that saw her passion and dream for women education; economic stability and ending harmful cultures in Kuria district grow massively.

She has come a long way having to overcome enough challenges that could have deterred her vision for her county but she has forged on fearlessly!She is one vocal and determined lady a few of the vices that makes her not to go un noticed.

FGM and Early marriage in Kuria has massively decreased thanks to countless efforts by Dennitah Ghati the founder and Director of ECAW –Education Center for the Advancement of Women, an indigenous, participatory grassroots community based organization in Kuria district. The organization is a safe space advocacy center that addresses violation of women rights issues that include FGM & Early marriage among other top women issues.

Being the first woman from Kuria to work in parliament, she is keen to mentor young women with leadership abilities to follow on her footsteps so that Kuria can have enough representation in parliament.

Denniitah has just begun!! She is not done yet so watch her space in 2016 and coming years!!!

If you can’t beat them, join them!!

 

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Witnessing a Community Baraza

This guest blog has been written by Lucy Barnett from the UK. Lucy is spending a month with ECAW researching for a Masters Dissertation into how grassroots organisations are engaging local communities to end harmful traditional practices that affect the girl child such as female genital cutting (FGC, also know as mutilation, or FGM) and child marriage.

Last Sunday I had the privilege of attending a baraza, a local community forum called by ECAW. The forum was held in Maeta, a village in Kuria East, forty minutes on motorbike from the main town, along dusty roads. We dropped by Dennitah’s mum house for a quick lunch, and from there processed on foot. Dennitah, Dennitah’s mum, the ECAW staff, a few family and friends, and myself all walked the 200 metres round the corner, greeted by locals all wanting to greet Dennitah and shake her hand. Dennitah Ghati is a well respected and celebrated woman in Maeta, having gone onto great things. She is a Member of Parliament and Women’s Representative for Migori Country. Having grown up in Kuria where her mum still lives, she knows well the challenges that locals, particularly women, have to overcome on a daily basis. She has encountered the same obstacles that girls continue to face in this traditional and isolated corner of Kenya.

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Dennitah is greeted by local women at the baraza

Having emerged as a leader, Dennitah has returned to support the community in its development, recognising the high returns to be had by investing in women. Down the road and turn left, we arrived at a large open field where large numbers were gathered. We were greeted with an incredible scene: ululations and dancing from the women who were delighted to see Dennitah and hear her speak. Dressed in their Sunday best of bright prints and suits for some of the men, the women danced and clapped and hugged one of their own, returned from Nairobi to support local opportunities and empower their girls.

After the celebrations, hundreds of people sat, the women grouped at the front and the men behind them, listening intently to what Dennitah had to say. She was joined by the Village Elder and the District Commissioner. These are the local politicians who had been called by ECAW to engage with the community members during this baraza. They were there to raise awareness on a range of issues, to listen to local issues, and to offer advice and respond to questions. Such discussions are vital for accountability and for aiding communications. This is especially important in a region like Kuria where internet and radio is limited and television and newspapers a luxury – news and policy therefore is not easily be disseminated from government outwards.

Dennitah addresses the crowd

The community was informed about the availability of financial support for widows and the elderly and of a scheme for women and youth to access government micro-loans in order to set up small businesses. This kind of information is essential for women without a good level of education are reliant on husbands and family members to support them. Following these talks, the floor opened up to local people to raise their concerns and ask questions.

It was amazing to see people so empowered to speak up and hold their local leaders to account. When ECAW started working here, and as is still the case in many communities, women simply did not raise their voices in public discussions. Yet here they were crowding at the front, their hands raised, eager to speak. One woman who stood-up to speak was visibly empowered and inspired by Dennitah’s example of leadership. She praised ECAW’s work around empowering girls in their community and pressed on her community the need to put greater value on girls’ education. Speaking articulately and with conviction, she pointed to her daughters – one currently in a local secondary school, the other who had gone on to study at university. She called on women in the community not to shy away from hard work, but to support their daughters to stay in school to enable economic and social opportunities to be opened for them.

Woman speaking

A woman is inspired to articulate the positive impacts of not having girls cut and allowing them to stay on in education

One of the issues raised at the forum was harmful traditional practices. A middle-aged man stood up and stated his confusion that at national level, politicians were calling on Kenyans to hold on to their traditions, and yet here was ECAW and a local MP along with local administration speaking against their custom of FGC. Dennitah explained that some local customs like FGC are detrimental, and that they must work to uphold positive customs and let go of negative ones which hold girls and local development back. She spoke on the consequences of FGC and emphasised the need to invest in the girl child as a way to support local development.

What was clear is that there is ever a need to educate people to realise for themselves that FGC is not a positive cultural norm. Dennitah and her team of local paralegals are the ideal people to share this information.  Afterall, Dennitah has been voted in locally to represent the people of Kuria. ECAW is well-regarded in the community, and has the necessary local understanding to best articulate a message that serves local needs. Community forums such as this one are empowering local people by giving them the full knowledge to enable them to come to their own decision that neither female genital cutting, nor taking girls out of school, serves either the girls or the wider community.

Positive Deviancy

Elisabeth Robi, known to her class mates as Robi, is a sixteen year old from Kuria region of Kenya. Like many other teenage girls from her area she is hardworking, modest, a little shy in front of the camera, but has a big spark and a lot of potential.

I with met her at her school where she is head girl and a role model to the rest of her peers. It was early July, and the teachers’ strike was in full flow, but Robi, along with some peers were keeping up their schooling and coming in to study anyway. Staying on top of their grades is particularly important for pupils in year eight, who are due to take exams to enter into secondary school in a few months time.

Robi is the second born in her family and has six sisters, all of whom but one are younger than herself.  When she was twelve years old her parents began putting pressure on her to undergo female genital mutilation (FGM). They were insistent that she should be cut in order to maintain the traditions and culture of her community. But Robi refused and kept her head down in her studies.

Robi is one of ECAW's positive deviants - she is role model for other girls in her school.

Robi is one of ECAW’s positive deviants – she is role model for other girls in her school.

Pressure came not just from her family but from community members too. Because she refused to undergo FGM, Robi was insulted and called names. She felt useless and under-valued, alienated from the other girls in her own class who had undergone the harmful tradition. The pressure to be cut intensified over the next few years: the names and bullying grew worse, and it became increasingly hard for Robi to resist.

Luckily, Robi was able to access ECAW’s Girls Empowerment Programme which runs leadership camps in holidays and after school girls clubs for girls Robi’s age. She found the support network she so vitally needed. Robi began attending the weekly girls clubs where she learnt the information and gained the confidence and support to continue to resist FGM and stay on in school.

Through the girls clubs and empowerment camps, girls like Robi engage with others who are resisting FGM and that they no-longer feel alone. At the camps girls also meet with teachers, ECAW trainers and staff who support and value them. They feel respected despite not being cut, and learn other skills that support them to reach their potential – from leadership to income-generating abilities.

Social norms in Kuria mean that teenage girls are expected to undergo FGM, marry young and become young mothers and housewives, often dropping out of school as a consequence. Girls who choose not to be cut are seen as deviant and rebellious in breaking from tradition. By offering girls an alternative and advocating for change, ECAW is shifting expectations towards girls not being cut and staying on in school.

Robi feels that ECAW is benefiting many girls in her community. She herself has been empowered to talk with other girls about not being cut, about her aspirations of becoming a doctor, and is learning about the health and social impacts of female genital cutting and early marriage. She was given the confidence and the knowledge to explain her choice to her family. Her parents and critically her father have changed their opinion on FGM and support Robi’s desire to stay on in education.

Robi was able to persuade her mother by talking to her about the impacts of FGM and the reasons she wants to stay in school. Her mother now advocates for an end to FGM by speaking to other mothers in the community. Robi says that before, FGM was a taboo. Now on the street you hear women talking about it, sharing its negative impacts and talking about how it is holding back their daughters.

Robi is a champion of change in her community. Along with her peers she is shifting the expectations put on girls and becoming a role models and leader. Being head girl gives her a platform to speak out and means she is a figure of aspiration within her school. Girls like Robi are positive deviants and they are leading the way for other girls.

Robi’s outlook has changed enormously since she was a twelve year old. Previously she felt fearful and isolated in her decision to not be cut: now is empowered and feels optimistic about her future. She tells me that  she needs to carry-on studying hard so that she will do well in her exams and can go on to study medicine. Although she would like to go and study in another part of Kenya, perhaps even aboard, she ultimately will return to Kuria. She wants to come back to her village as a health professional and support the people in her community. With aspirations and opportunities like this is in girls like Robi that her community needs to be investing. With the support of ECAW this investment is being realised.