CIFORD’s Alternative Rite of Passage: Girls need education, NOT circumcision. By Anna Donaldson

CIFORD T-Shirt Slogan

CIFORD T-Shirt Slogan

Following three weeks of anticipation and preparation, the Alternative Rite of Passage weekend event for girls seeking an alternative to female circumcision was upon us. The event was going to be an invaluable insight into the progressive education and protection of vulnerable girls in rural Kenya. were excited and proud to be a part of this event, which looked to empower young girls in order to protect themselves against Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).

We worked very closely alongside Margaret Ikiara and her community organisation, CIFORD Kenya, and we had really begun to grasp the importance of the event and how it was changing the future for so many girls in Margaret’s community. Her experience with female circumcision and her father’s controversial choice to refuse it on her behalf became the core inspiration behind her lifetime commitment to community development work. She is renowned for her involvement in the fight against FGM and for empowering women and girls through the encouragement and provision of education. Forty girls were invited to attend the event, which was funded by CIFORD’s newest partner, Soroptimist International of Great Britain and Ireland (SIGBI). were taking this opportunity to conduct valuable research in order to gauge the girls’ understanding of important social issues surrounding FGM and how effective an educational Alternative Rite of Passage (ARP) was to their future protection against social exploitation. The girls were chosen based on their perceived vulnerability to female circumcision, a practice that has been illegal in Kenya since 2000 but is still commonly occurring, particularly in rural areas. The girls, aged between 10 and 16, were housed, taught, fed and watered for free for the entire weekend, which has not always been possible for earlier ARP’s due to financing issues. Relying on parents to make a contribution to cover expenses created an unfortunate barrier for some of the most vulnerable girls in the community, many girls consequently missing out on an education that could potentially save their life.

CIFORD's students for the Alternative Rite of Passage educational weekend

CIFORD's students for the Alternative Rite of Passage educational weekend

The seminar topics were chosen to help the girls learn how to identify and deal with situations that compromised their safety and their human rights. By giving them the knowledge they needed to make informed decisions to protect themselves, CIFORD hope that these girls would become a revolutionary generation that would pass down accurate information to their own children that contradicted the cultural myths that have been condoning the dangerous ritual.

Due to the taboo surrounding topics of a sexual nature, these incidents are usually left undealt with, leading to continued abuse, sexual entrapment and no where for the girls to turn for help. The sessions revealed that some, if not all, of these girls had been solicited for sex, sometimes in exchange for sanitary towels or other basic amenities that they might not be able to afford.

In regards to FGM, we learned that scare-tactics were commonly used to ensure their cooperation despite its official condemnation and national ban. The myths that were highlighted included the idea that uncircumcised girls are considered unclean, that they are promiscuous and undisciplined, and that if the clitoris is not removed it continues to grow. All these untruths are exacerbated by the fear of a lifetime of social exclusion and humiliation, not just for them but for their families too. It is clear that the element of shame and guilt that accompanies these harmful lies come from people that the girls trust and have been brought up to respect, which means that challenging this information isn’t always 100% effective. Some girls have been known to graduate from the ARP and still undergo circumcision. However, with the dedication from CIFORD and support from community government and other institutions there is a much better chance of reducing the amount of girls affected by FGM - reaching out to parents will play a key role.

Ex-nurse, Grace, and FGM victim, Angelica, re-enact the ritual of female circumcision

Ex-nurse, Grace, and FGM victim, Angelica, re-enact the ritual of female circumcision

The educational sessions covered important social issues including the repercussions of teenage pregnancy, early marriage, HIV/AIDS, drugs and substance abuse, as well as the short and long-term effects of FGM. The girls were given an insight into the secret rituals of traditional female circumcision by a woman who had been circumcised herself and by a retired nurse who had witnessed the traumatic medical consequences of the dangerous procedure throughout her career.

Our Charity Apprentices held a girls' empowerment and self-realisation session to emphasise the importance of internal strength and to open up their minds to the importance of the role of women in society, even within a male-dominated culture. We had the girls identify important characteristics of a strong woman, emphasising that these traits were already inside them and that it was up to them to acknowledge, embrace and nurture these strengths and encourage other girls to do the same. This session was held in alignment with CIFORD’s belief that self-realisation is an integral element of education and that confidence and self-belief motivate lasting social change.

Margaret received an unprecedented amount of donations of sanitary towels, books and pens from local members of the community that were handed out to the girls at their ARP graduation ceremony on the last day. They also received a t-shirt from CIFORD that they proudly paraded down the street for their graduation procession, exhibiting an indisputable message to the community: Girls need education, NOT circumcision.

The initiates proudly parade through the street with the CIFORD banner 

The initiates proudly parade through the street with the CIFORD banner 

Speeches at the graduation ceremony emphasised the societal importance of what the girls had been taught over the course of the weekend. The local Chief, a pastor, parents and other guests were among the speakers who acknowledged their community responsibility to reach out to others who are vulnerable to harmful cultural traditions like FGM that inhibit necessary and progressive change for a better quality of life for women. I was honoured to be a part of something so fundamental to the growth of their female community; a community who, despite much suffering at the hands of men, still acknowledged the need to educate and support men and boys in the same capacity, for a large scale social initiative that empowers everyone and hopes to work together to eradicate a currently still prominent and culturally embedded gender bias.

The CIFORD and team - (From left to right - Hannah, Aurelia, Annabel, Anna, Margaret and Anjali)

The CIFORD and team - (From left to right - Hannah, Aurelia, Annabel, Anna, Margaret and Anjali)

An insight into Meru

Our fantastic Charity Apprentices are in Kenya over the next 4 weeks working across our various projects. The apprentices are now half-way through their 12-month course which will help them prepare for a career within the charity sector. Over the past few months they have learnt about ethics, global child health, sustainable development and how to fundraise. 

They are now seeing for themselves how the money they have raised is helping, as well as working with our partner CIFORD in Meru to strengthen the programme there to further benefit the women and children of Meru. One of the apprentices Anna Donaldson, has written a fantastic blog - sharing her experience so far of the Meru Women's Garden Project and the excellent work that's going on. Read it below: and CIFORD – An introduction to working in community development in rural Kenya.

Anna Donaldson -

Anna Donaldson -

"After only a couple of days of working with CIFORD, it was clear that Ethan, a 23 year old student from Muranga County, was an integral part of the training, operation and supervision of the Meru women’s support groups.

CIFORD aims to empower women in order to become better providers for their family; teaching them about agriculture, reproductive health, hygiene and to build a supportive community where they help each other succeed. Excess produce from their own kitchen gardens can then be sold to create an income for the family, and give their children a better quality of life through funding necessary equipment to keep them in school.

Living in accommodation provided by the charity – a modest wooden shack tucked away at the back of the garden behind CIFORD’s very own kitchen garden – Ethan works with the women in the mornings at their homesteads, training them in effective and sustainable farming. In his spare time, he studies agriculture through a distance learning degree at a university in Meru Town.

Inviting him into the office for coffee, none of us could resist the opportunity to find out a little more about him and his involvement in the charity. He seemed to quietly enjoy our curiosity and subsequent interrogation, smiling at our reactions and enjoying his moment in the limelight.

He wasn’t just giving us an insight into his own role within the organisation, he was giving us a fundamental understanding into the cultural conventions that this forward-thinking project was looking to change within the community – and for this, we were extremely grateful.  

Anna Donaldson -

Anna Donaldson -

Ethan made it very clear that Meru County still upheld very traditional gender roles that even he considered to be unequal and oppressive towards women within the family hierarchy.
He said that in his home county, women had much more of an equal footing with their husbands and enjoyed a higher level of respect within the home and within society. In Meru, however, men were the decision makers for the family but made very little contribution, consequently putting an unnecessary amount of strain on their wives at home and at work.
He seemed to suggest that one of the core reasons for the women’s oppressive lifestyle was not just that the women were not given a choice but that their lack of expectations of their husbands was largely what allowed this behaviour to continue. In order for this to change, the expectation needed to be there in the first place and then needed to be reinforced with the introduction of external societal pressures.

So far we had established that women are widely expected to provide food and a small income to support the family on top of their responsibilities at home; the cooking, cleaning, tending to the animals, and taking care of the children.

In Kenya, school is technically compulsory at primary level. However, it is unclear how vigorously this law is enforced. Through general observation it is certainly clear that not all children are attending school. Many of the children that we passed in the street were obviously carrying out chores that would have significantly helped with the mother’s daily workload – notably fetching water or grazing the animals.

We learned from Ethan that children’s roles within the home were to assist the mother from the age of about 6 years old. Ethan told us that when a boy reached 12 or 13 he was circumcised, and this drastically altered what was expected of him at home. A sign of “coming-of-age”, circumcision is what ceremonially transforms a boy into a man. His duties at home would cease and the girls in the family would assume any responsibilities previously carried out by her brothers. We later learned from Margaret, top dog at CIFORD, that in Meru County in particular discrimination started even younger than that.

The men didn’t contribute to any of the daily domestic activities. They didn’t work, they didn’t help out at home, and they didn’t help look after their children… So what did they do?

He explained that it was perfectly normal for the men to go to the market, hang out in the street, chat to each other and basically watch the day go by. We briefly discussed the implications of alcoholism among these men and in cases where alcoholism is a problem, it appears that that this destructive habit is likely to be fuelled by the men’s boredom. Habits like this put a financial strain on the family and can lead to men taking money from their wives by force, making these women much more likely victims of domestic abuse of a more violent nature.

I couldn’t help wonder if helping the women earn a higher income would raise their husband’s expectations of their wives to provide for them, maybe even making them more dependent and enabling them to become even more idle.

Ethan continued to explain that CIFORD had also held a session for men where they discussed issues of how the men could contribute to their families and how their current behaviour was affecting their wives quality of life and that of their family. He explained that it wasn’t that these husbands and fathers did not want to do anything to help their family; it was the lack of expectation and education that had resulted in these cultural habits forming in the first place and being passed on through the generations – largely unchallenged.

This is where cultural tradition can impede positive social change. Where there are ingrained cultural habits, there is usually very little expectation for change. Where there is little expectation for change, there is little hope for those things to improve. Change is scary, even for those who would benefit the most from it.

Ethan expressed how he believed that these men loved their wives and their children and that this would be motivation enough for them to want to change and become a more active contributor within the home. With the women’s involvement in the Meru Women’s Garden Project, families have been given access to their own water tanks, had energy efficient stoves installed in their homes and have learned how to generate a more fruitful income with access to regular agricultural training. Attending some of the Women’s Group meetings next week will give us a better understanding about how this project is directly improving these women’s lives". 

Visit our Charity Apprentice website to find out more about the course:


ABBA Tribute Show raises almost £4,000 for Meru!

SI Canterbury put on a phenomenal ABBA tribute show at the Marlowe Theatre on Monday 11th July and raised around £4,000 for Meru Women's Garden Project.

SI Canterbury stated that the one night show was "nearly a sell out with only a few unsold seats when the curtain went up". 

ABBA look-a-likes took to the stage and performed all of the classic hits that the group is well known for with around 1,150 people singing and dancing along to Mama Mia, Dancing Queen, Waterloo and plenty more!

The night was a huge success and "The Marlowe Theatre kindly offered to donate all profits from the show, a whopping £7,052.24 and in addition we collected over £820 at the doors as the audience exited the theatre". 

The money raised for Meru Women's Garden Project will go a long way to improve the lives of women and children who benefit from the project. We want to say a huge thank you to SI Canterbury for their hard work, creative fundraising and most of all for putting on a fantastic evening for the people of Canterbury. 

SI Canterbury have said "THANK YOU FOR THE MUSIC, and for the generosity of the Marlowe Theatre and the wonderful audience who came to the show and dropped money into our buckets as they left. It was a wonderful and worthwhile night!!!". 

If you're thinking of putting on a fundraising event for Meru - keep an eye out in the next few weeks for 'The Great Big Supper Club' an easy, fun and delicious way to fundraise in the comfort of your home!

Women Empowering Women: Meru Women’s Garden Project Launch, International Women’s Day 2016

International Women’s Day seemed a very fitting date to launch the Meru Women’s Garden Project, which aims to empower women and girls in Meru County, Kenya. 

SI Canterbury presenting with their first fundraising cheque

SI Canterbury presenting with their first fundraising cheque

The project was selected at conference to be SIGBI’s Federation Project 2016-2019. The project is organised in partnership with and their delivery partners Community Initatives for Rural Development (CIFORD).

SI Canterbury, who designed and delivered the winning project pitch at conference, celebrated the launch by hosting a three-course dinner. The event was attended by 70 supporters, who were treated to a delicious menu and enjoyed entertainment from the Maridadi singers and drummers, who performed African music.

Attendees included current Project Liaison Rayner Rees and representatives Managing Director Thomas Muirhead and Operations Manager Kim Montgomery. Thomas gave a speech outlining the partnership and how the project will educate, empower and enable the women of Meru. were then presented with funds which clubs have already been busy raising for the project; £1,000 was donated by SI Canterbury, £250 by SI Northwich and District and €500 by SI Versailles via the Friendship Link. This was a wonderful start to the project fundraising, working toward raising enough funds to train the initial group of women in life-changing agricultural skills. 

There was an atmosphere of excitement for the future of the project, with lots of buzz around upcoming fundraisers, including summer Garden Parties and the World’s Biggest Supper Club in October. SI Canterbury will be raising further funds for the project at Thank You For The Music on July 11th.

The evening was a wonderful celebration of women, the project and the partnership. If you have a fundraising idea or any questions, please contact the Project Liaison Officer or your Region's Ambassador.