Twenty five and with a mission; to completely eradicate female genital mutilation in her community as well other harmful cultural practices among them early and forced marriages. Armed with advocacy and education as her primary tools for social change she hopes to advance the rights of women and girls in Kuria East, Migori County, Kenya. Meet Natalie Robi Tingo, an Anti FGM activist and an economist by profession. She is rekindling the dreams of girls who’ve run away from their homes to escape the cut, a cultural practice that has lived with her community since she was a young girl.
“My involvement with the community and being really vocal about Female Genital Mutilation dates back to when I was nineteen, and still in college in 2011. It’s at this point that I finally got to know how dangerous FGM really was and the pain young girls endured while undergoing the cut. I visited my former primary school and most girls my age and those I studied with had been married off immediately after the rite throwing their dreams out of the window. Angry and burning with urge to help the girl child, I gave activism a shot,” notes Natalie. Luckily for her, it’s also at this time that Kenya enacted The Anti FGM act.
She started keeping girls in school ensuring they had sanitary towels for when menstruation knocks and basically encouraging them to stay in school. “I would sell some of my clothes to buy girls in my community pads. All I wanted was to be a big sister to the girls,” she adds.
She then came up with a grassroots based organization, Msichana Empowerment Kuria in 2013, to enable her push her agenda further and shed more light to the people in her community on the dangers of FGM. This was birthed by the need to provide a safe haven for girls escaping the cut. The organization was registered in 2015 and the end of the same year saw Natalie and her team of fifteen people at Msichana Empowerment Kuria hold a fundraiser and use the proceeds to establish their first ever community centre and library within a 100km radius.
The facilities now support an after school program for more than 500 children aged between eight and thirteen every week. So far the after school program is in its second year and they have managed to work with over 1,000 children. They have also supported other twenty two girls who were rescued from the cut. “Its with the recognition that illiteracy is one the major factors that largely contributes to the continuation of the harmful cultural practice and low living standards, that we, Msichana Empowerment Kuria, believe that literacy among our children and youth will bring the cut to an end with our generation,” she says.
At the community centre, there runs a program dubbed NAWEZA a Swahili word that loosely translates to ‘I can’ which is a year long skills based adolescent girls program that reinforces positive messages of self confidence. The program provides educational and recreational experiences through positive social interactions. “Our hope is that these amazing young girls will be inspired to be strong, have a positive self image and gain confidence in their every day lives,” explains the Moi University alumna. To ensure sustainable support of the girls beyond the project, Natalie and her team work with the girls’ parents as well. The community too isn’t left behind as community dialogues are held every year in a bid to sensitize folks on the harmful effects of the cut. This strategy has helped them reach more than 30,000 community members.
The centre also redefines mentorship programs by providing a safe space for girls and their families to add their voices in the fight against the vice.
Natalie’s love for the girl child has seen her run another project at a personal level known as ‘Saving Her Clitoris’. This she does through her social media platforms and is solely an online venture. “I wanted to use my social media channels to bring the conversations I have in the community to the online space, especially targeting the youth demographic. In order to kick out this vice, collective effort is needed,” she adds. The platform provides information, shares experiences and calls interested parties to action. Natalie hopes to share more information about the situation in The Gambia,Sierra Leone and even Somalia where female genital mutilation is at more than 90% through ‘Saving Her Clitoris’.
Despite having broken the glass ceiling and continued fighting for girls through activism, it hasn’t been a smooth ride for Natalie. Growing up uncut in a community where female genital mutilation is held in high regard was tough. She speaks of being discriminated against for being odd and how she almost lost her life fighting female circumcision. “There has always been resentment and hostility from people who still cling onto this practice.”
The fact that most of their operations depend on donations and volunteers has also seen them stall and even close down some programs because of lack of funds.
She, however, appreciates the overwhelming support she gets from donors as almost half of what they do depend on them. They sell maize, beans, eggs and chicken to fund up to 30% of activities besideS partnering with the ANTI-FGM board and other local organizations like Nyanza Initiative for Girl Education and Empowerment (NIGEE) for more support.
Her greatest highlight remains every moment girls tell her they did well in school because of a role she played, and that they do not want to be circumcised. She describes these moments as powerful.
Natalie has shared her work as a keynote youth speaker at the closing ceremony of the Global Festival for Sustainable Development goals in Germany, awarded the International Women’s Day Leadership award by Barclays Bank-Kenya, Couture Magazine and Gogaga Experiential. She is also one the Vital Voices 2017/2018 Global fellows, a 9th EWHA Global Empowerment alumnus, and Ashoka American Express emerging change maker 2016. Her work has also been featured on The Global Citizen twice.
What keeps her going? The fact that she hopes to see female genital mutilation end with her generation.
Anyone is free to volunteer with them as they put up seasonal calls for volunteers for specific programs. More information about this can be found on their website (www.msichanaempowermentkuria.co.ke) and social media platforms (Facebook: Msichana Empowerment Kuria, Instagram: Msichana Empowerment Kuria, and Twitter: @MsichanaKuria). One can donate both in kind and financially.
“You are never too young to make a difference,whatever change means to you be that change,” she concludes.
***BTW I made it to The Huffington Post Editor-at-Large programme earlier in the year and this article first appeared on my contributor platform at Huffpost. You can catch more of my work on that other side here: m.huffpost.com/us/author/grace-akinyi ***