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The Village That Gave Up FGM and Gender Taboos – Because of Economics

When the women of Rwandit village learned how much initiation ceremonies for girls and boys were really costing them – in terms of money and lost education – they radically reformed their traditions, giving women and girls more power in the process.

Written by Sophie Mbugua Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Beatrice Bii goes through her record-keeping book at a village savings and loans association meeting.Sophie Mbugua

KERICHO COUNTY, Kenya – In Rwandit village, in Kenya’s Rift Valley, traditional initiation rites used to last for months. During those months, girls and boys were introduced to secret rituals and taught tribal customs for the first time.

At the end of the initiation period, the community would put on a big feast of goat and cow meat, traditional fermented milk, cornmeal and a local brew to mark the graduation of the newly initiated.

Betty Kitur, a 42-year-old mother of five, says that during the rites season, families would spend more than 5,000 Kenyan shillings ($50) each on providing animals to slaughter, and buying new clothes as well as the sorghum and millet required to make the local brew – a month’s income for many in the village.

When the feasts were over, the community’s cows and goats would be slaughtered, and food stocks would be gone.

For the girls of the village, the cost would be even higher. As part of their initiation, they would undergo female genital mutilation (FGM).

As well as being left with the lasting physical damage of FGM, Kitur says girls would lose their access to education after being initiated. Few went to high school after they were cut at the age of 13, as the ceremony was designed to prepare them for marriage.

But that was then. Today, initiation season looks very different in Rwandit. The introduction of an economic concept known as the “leaky commodity bucket” led the women of the village to reassess their priorities and lobby the community for change.

“We came together as a community and analyzed the annual expenses [for ceremonies] versus the number of children missing school for lack of fees,” Kitur says.

“We reduced the celebrations period and expenses and chose to invest in education and assist in building classes. Since we started this practice in 2007, FGM has stopped, six girls have reached the college level and four have graduated, and currently, nine of them are at the university level, and two are expected to graduate this year.”

Leaky bucket: Learning record-keeping skills allowed the women of Rwandit village to lobby the community for change. (Sophie Mbugua)

Kitur says celebrations have also been modernized. “We no longer partake of the local brew during ceremonies. Only one goat is slaughtered, with the cost shared among the members.”

The leaky commodity bucket concept was introduced to Rwandit by the World Agroforestry Centre, a research institute based in Nairobi. It is based on simple record keeping: villagers use a book to record their cash inflows and outflows both at household level and community level. In the leaky bucket metaphor, the cash inflows represent the amount of water going into a bucket to fill it, and cash expenditure is the water that leaks out of the holes.

At the end of an agricultural season, community members balance production costs versus final earnings. People soon realized that after ceremonies, outflows were always at a record high.

“They use the leaky commodity bucket to record their cash inflows from the farm produce they grow and other sources of income,” Victoria Apondi, a field attendant with the World Agroforestry Centre, explains.

“It’s balanced against the outflows that includes daily household needs, school fees and farm expenses such as pesticides, and farm workers at both at household and community level.

“This enables a farmer to balance their production cost versus their final earning to gauge if they are farming at a profit or a loss, and inform future financial decisions.”

Allowing Women to Invest

After the members of the community learned to monitor cash inflows and outflows, they set up a Village Savings and Loans Association that provides basic financial services to members. Each week, every member can save between 50 ($0.50) and 10,000 ($100) Kenyan shillings.

At a recent weekly meeting, Beatrice Bii went to ask for a loan. Bii holds 7,000 shares in the association, and needed a loan of 5,000 Kenyan shillings ($50) to buy pesticides and seedlings to boost her vegetable farm.

“Every Sunday, a member either repays a loan or borrows. As members repay their borrowed loans and save for the day, those in need of loans get to borrow. Each loan is returned within a month with 10 percent interest,” Bii says.

Thanks to the association, Bii says she has changed her farming practices.

“Traditionally, I used to farm maize and coffee only,” she says. “It limited my earnings. Today, I grow and sell local vegetables – which were given away freely to neighbors before – and fruits that earn me money within three months. I also grow maize and coffee that earns me money at the end of the year.”

Growing more vegetables has not only seen the farmers spend more time on the farm. Kitur says learning about individual cash flow has brought a different perspective on the way the community perceive money and time.

“We noticed as women we wasted much time and money visiting relatives and friends,” she says.

“Maize and coffee didn’t require too much weeding, but vegetables and fruits require constant monitoring. The time spent visiting relatives is now allocated to farming.”

Breaking Taboos

As well as ending FGM, efforts to increase cash inflows have seen attitudes change towards tree planting and investing among women.

“I grew up knowing women were not allowed to plant trees among my Luo community,” Lilian Anyango, 26, says. “It was a taboo: [People] believed that their children would die.”

“Cows and goats were owned by men, so many women were afraid to invest their money lest they lose their income to their men.”

Today, Anyango has planted a hundred Grevillea Robusta trees, which she can sell for firewood, and owns two cows herself.

Lilian Anyango has been able to break taboos around women planting trees. (Sophie Mbugua)

As women farm, grow trees and save money through reduced travel, men supplement these incomes through running plant nurseries.

“The nurseries grow coffee seedlings, and various tree seedlings that we sell within the village and among neighboring villages who plant them for wood, charcoal and building poles,” explains Daniel Cheruiyot, chairman of the Ruandit self-help group.

Apondi says the success of the program shows that as long as women are empowered and have access to information and support from their male counterparts, rural economies will improve.

Anyango agrees. “I need milk for my children. They also need school fees and other needs,” she says.

“In today’s economy, a woman cannot afford to sit and wait for a man to provide everything. One has to contribute too.”

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