Thursday, October 19, 2017

Meet Esmael - A Man who is a Champion for the Rights of Women

I met Esmael Omar at The Girl Generation office in Nairobi to discuss the challenges of ending Female Genital Mutilation and discovered a man passionately committed to protecting and empowering girls and women.

Esmael explains: “I am a male champion to end FGM because most female members of my family have undergone FGM  - my sisters, mother, aunts, cousins, everyone - apart from my little niece, who’s only eight, and I don’t want her to go through this trauma and suffer throughout her life.

“I remember my sisters and cousins as teenagers telling me about their painful menstrual cycle, the cramps, the extreme distress and later the agony they suffered in childbirth. So all these terrible experiences of the important women in my life have inspired me in doing what I do.

Esmael’s passionate commitment to this cause is not theoretic. His motivation to stop the harmful traditional practice is deeply personal, born of compassion and concern for those he loves.

Esmael Omar is Programme Officer in Kenya for The Girl Generation, a powerful global project dedicated to ending the harmful practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), embracing one of the key UN Global Goals, adopted by world leaders in 2015, with a target of achieving the goals by 2030. Ending FGM comes under Goal 5: to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.

Dedication to Health Education 

Esmael, 31, joined The Girl Generation early this year. 

Previously he worked tirelessly with communities on sexual reproductive health, HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment and stopping FGM. In 2007, he founded a non-profit called AFYAFRIKA, to support youth with health education in the Narok region, where he was partly raised.

He says: “We tackled issues like HIV/AIDS, which at that time, the prevalence was very high with little information available to young people about sexual health.”

“I have witnessed the suffering of my community members on a variety of issues – like HIV/AIDS, FGM, early and forced marriage and gender-based violence. For these reasons I have devoted myself to this campaign.”

The Somali Community in Kenya

Esmael is part of the Somali community living in Kenya, and for generations the Somali people have practised the most severe form of FGM – infibulation, where a girl’s clitoris and labia are removed and her vulva is sewn together leaving only a small hole. Mutilating a child like this risks death through blood loss, infection and shock. If she survives, she suffers emotional trauma and a lifetime of pain and the risk of infection during urination, menstruation, intercourse and childbirth.

Esmael says that many Somali communities have stopped infibulation but now practise ‘sunna’, removing the tip of the clitoris.

He says sadly and wrongly FGM has been justified as a Moslem practice and yet a faction of respected leaders say that the Koran does not advocate the practice.

Esmael says: “In our culture we need to emphasise the value of girls. They are mothers of tomorrow. We have to reach out to them to show them they have a future, a dignified life, free from all forms of violence. Every day when I wake up this is the goal that drives me.

“These are fundamental human rights - the right to health, the right to safety and being free from abuse and violence. The greatest challenge has been the social norms in our communities that justify these harmful practices.

Grassroots is where Social Change Starts to Grow 

“My role is to work with all the grassroots organisations across Kenya. We offer Social Change Communication training, which explores the best ways to reach communities to engage in dialogue about these hidden issues and inspire them to take action.

“I also support The Girl Generation – End FGM grants programme so that grassroots organisations have the capacity and resources to reach a wider audience and have a wider impact.

“And The Girl Generation has a team of End FGM Ambassadors who are highly respected, influential people who inspire change.
“We would like to see a FGM-free generation, where every girl in every village is safe to grow up healthy without being cut.”

Esmael has also had international experience, working for Diaspora Community Services based in Brooklyn, New York last year, working to ensure that ‘people of colour’ received medication for HIV-AIDS.

“Access to health care is key for needy and poor people everywhere.”

“I am glad that I’m able to understand these complex issues through research and through talking with people in remote communities throughout Kenya. FGM is a dynamic issue that is constantly changing. In the past, some communities cut teenage girls, now it’s being done at a younger age, even to infants,” he says.

December is known as the “cutting season” when girls are on school holiday. Esmael says that in the remote, impoverished northern region, over 94 per cent of girls suffer from female genital mutilation.

He adds that even though the practice is illegal in Kenya, parents still risk prosecution and cut their daughters, not because they want to harm them, but out of cultural obligation, believing they are doing the right thing by their daughters, making them marriageable, honourable and chaste.

Only grassroots campaigns and community-led dialogues in the villages everywhere will stop the harmful practice.

Men As Champions

Esmael is one courageous man who is standing up as a champion for girls and women, defending their rights to living a healthy life, free of the trauma, abuse and violation of genital mutilation. 
In the next few months, Esmael will be part of a team that will be launching a global campaign to end FGM.
In collaboration with NTV, he is planning to produce a documentary that will bring to light the efforts of male champions from four different counties of Kenya in ending FGM.

Empowering Youth with a Voice 

Esmael is also part of a team from The Girl Generation that is planning the first pan-african 2018 END FGM YOUTH FESTIVAL, which will be held in Nairobi.

“The Youth#EndFGM Festival will bring together young people from across the continent – placing them at the centre of the movement to end FGM, and catalysing their collective action, reach and influence, Esmael explains.

“The #EndFGM festival will be an opportunity to celebrate the change that is already taking place, share together what has worked and what hasn’t, and to show the world that African young people are seriously committed to ending FGM.

“The youth will make their call to action, and deliver their demands to African leaders about the future they want to be part of.”
This generation is standing up as champions to end FGM and protect future generations of sisters and daughters, wives and mothers so they can live healthy, happy lives.    

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