Chinese NGOs in Africa save local girls from female genital mutilation

By Xie Wenting Source:Global Times Published: 2018/3/1 19:01:35

China’s presence in Africa is not just about investment; it extends to social work


China House, a financially struggling Chinese NGO, shelters many girls who have escaped FGM.

Some African tribes perform FGM in order to marry off their young daughters in exchange for farm animals.

Chinese businesses in Africa are also attempting to empower local women by hiring more female employees.

China House volunteers play games with sheltered local girls who have escaped FGM in Kenya.Photo: Courtesy of Ai Ziqi



At the age of 10, Rose (pseudonym) left her family in Kenya on a dark night, running into the wildness, vigilant of possible attacks from wild animals as well as being hunted by her own father.

After learning that her parents decided to perform female genital mutilation (FGM, female circumcision) on her, she planned her escape. FGM requires cutting off part of or all external female genitalia on a girl, many of whom are only between 4 and 14 years old.

In Rose's Maasai (an ethnic group inhabiting southern Kenya) culture, FGM is a ritual that "transforms" a girl to a woman so that she can become an eligible bride. While Kenya has banned FGM since 2011, it is still widely practiced among rural tribes.

Rose's escape was a success. She found people to help her and was transported to a shelter run by China House, an NGO that connects Chinese youth with Africans.

The shelter, opened last April in Loitokitok (also Oloitokitok, a town in Kajiado County close to the Tanzania-Kenya border), provides lodging, food and education opportunities to girls who have escaped from their families to avoid FGM.

Ai Ziqi, a female Chinese national who is in charge of the anti-FGM rescue program at China House, told the Global Times that they are currently sheltering five girls like Rose. The small shelter can host 12 people at most.

"We fund-raised the money from Chinese people in China and Kenya to open the shelter," she said, explaining that they initially crowd-sourced about 500,000 yuan ($7,901). "If we are unable to find more funding in the future, we can only survive two years." she revealed.

The shelter has become a temporary haven if not heaven for these girls. Rose declared there that her dream is to become a pilot. Ai's team pays the girls' school tuition, and personally she thinks that "education is the most important weapon to empower these girls."

Wei Tingting, a feminist in China, told the Global Times that now many Chinese organizations and companies getting involved in the African women empowerment movement is no longer seen as "unusual" owing to China's growing assistance to the continent.

"China has many experiences for Africa to learn from in women empowerment. An important lesson is that it's necessary to improve women's financial incomes first, and then their social status will be elevated correspondingly," she said.

Rescue mission

Ai, 23, first learned about FGM from the film Desert Flower (2009), an autobiography of a Somalian woman circumcised at the age of 3. After conducting additional research and readings two years ago, she fully realized its horrific cruelty.

She attributed the reason that some tribal families still perform FGM to simple economics. FGM is often linked with child marriage - the sooner their genitals are mutilated the sooner they can be married off - and as many tribes practice polygamy (the custom of having more than one wife), young daughters are often "married" to old men by their parents for about eight cows or goats.

"These families are generally poor and tend to view cows and goats more preciously [than women]," Ai said, adding that while such practice is technically illegal, many hungry families are willing to take the risk.

FGM deprives women of sexual pleasure and can cause serious health problems ranging from infections, difficulty in urinating and menstrual flow to complications during childbirth and fatal bleeding. The UN has campaigned against FGM since 2010.

According to Ai, China House cooperates with Maasai Girl Life Time Dream Foundation, a local NGO dedicated to saving girls from FGM. The foundation is responsible for rescuing girls from being circumcised.

"They have informants in villages who report to them in advance which family will perform FGM. They then cooperate with police in a rescue mission and take the girls out before surgery," Ai explained to the Global Times.

Due to language barriers and appearances, Chinese people often do not get directly involved in this kind of rescue mission, but provide help in other ways. "We once rewarded informants with cell phones donated by Chinese companies," Ai said.

According to her, FGM is often performed by an elder woman in a village; in some other cases the girl will be taken to a clinic for the bloody operation.

After a rescue, girls are sent to Ai's shelter. Worrying that they will be forced to undergo FGM if they return home, Ai said she tries to keep the girls at the shelter until they reach high school, during which time they have passed the "ideal FGM age."

 


Economic obstacles

During holidays, the rescued girls are free to visit their families if they want. Ai's team often attends these family visits accompanied by a translator.

"We don't encounter public backlash when visiting these families. They know that this is illegal and many people in the tribes are becoming increasingly open minded," she said.

The Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act of 2011 in Kenya stipulated a punishment from three years in prison to life imprisonment for guilty parties. Offenders can also be heavily fined. In Ai's rescue missions, family members are not severely punished, as the girls are taken out before the FGM happens.

"Also, as these families are so poor, most of them are actually pleased to see that we're paying for their daughters, which relieves their burden," she added.

To ensure that they can have a better future, China House also offers some skill training classes in addition to sending them to school. "The biggest hurdle is money. The ideal situation is that we can afford to keep them here until they finish high school, but we don't have much more money," she said.

To raise awareness and support from China, the group runs a WeChat account that shares anti-FGM stories. But the clicks are few. As China House also organizes volunteering opportunities for Chinese youth, they use anti-FGM as a topic to attract youth in order to solicit donations.

The organization also solicits material support from Chinese companies operating in Africa. But as these companies are often located in distant cities, it is not always convenient to get help from them, said Ai.

To ease the shelter's financial burden, some rescued girls are now making traditional Maasai handicrafts to sell at local markets; the team is researching opportunities to export their crafts to China.

Ai noted that another obstacle is that it takes a long time for the local government to officially transfer guardianship from their parents to the organization so that they can legally host these children. In one case, they waited for half a year to get official approval.

"The working efficiency of locals isn't very high. It takes a much longer time to complete things," she complained.

Financial empowerment

With more Chinese companies relocating into Africa, many are now providing job opportunities and training classes for local women. In a reply to the Global Times by King Deer Cashmere Company Limited, a Chinese cashmere product manufacturer with a factory in Madagascar, a representative explained that 4,028 out of their 5,300 employees are local women.

"Before we built factories there, the local employment rate, especially among women, was very low," said Yao Ruijun, assistant president of King Deer Cashmere Company.

He noted that local women often work in agriculture or spinning and service industries and their salaries are comparatively lower than men. "We offer special training, teaching spinning techniques and management knowledge to our female labors," he added.

Ai said that due to educational constraints, local women have a much lower employment rate than men in Africa.

In a reply sent by China-Africa Cotton, a Chinese company operating in four African countries, they said they hire more local female employees as temporary workers, while the full-time workers are mostly men, because of the education difference.

As female farmers are a major labor force in Africa, the company offers its local female employees periodic training including how to properly use fertilizers. China-Africa Cotton in Zambia also organizes every 10 women in one "club," offering them free sunflower seeds to plant and then buying the final products from them.

Founded in 2013, more than 500 women have participated in the sunflower seed club. In 2014, the figure increased to more than 1,300. According to the company's reply, it has increased the annual income of these women by 500 kwacha, a local currency, which allows them to purchase up to 200-kilograms of corn flour.

"When the economy develops, most problems won't become problems anymore," said Wei Tingting, adding that Chinese company's financial empowerment is a key to advance African women's rights.

Huang Hongxiang, founder of China House, who has stayed in Africa for 4 years, told the Global Times that China's presence in Africa is not only about investment; there is also a growing trend that Chinese are getting involved in local social work.

"Our investment has reached a certain level, so now it's necessary for us to do more social work to push forward sustainable development and social advancement in our investment countries. Only in this way can we gain local recognition and social license," he said.

Huang added that many Chinese companies are not very good at doing social work, but this is being compensated with more Chinese NGOs and young people going to Africa.


Newspaper headline: To the rescue


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