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How You Can Help Kenyan Women Build Businesses This Holiday Season

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My wife grew up in Nairobi, Kenya, and only visited her "shags" - or ancestral homeland - on vacations.

Phyll is, in other words, a city girl, but she knew enough about the countryside to recognize a bogus number when she heard it, and 50% was bogus.

That's the number that was commonly cited at human rights conferences she attended while studying in the United States as being the percentage of Kenyan women who were victims of female genital mutilation (FGM).

"I kept hearing this number, and I knew it was false," she says. "No one could tell me where it came from, but everyone was using it."

Her direct experience told her the real number was much smaller, but she also knew that where FGM is practiced, it's deeply enmeshed in the culture, and stubbornly refuses to die.

Why the disconnect between perception and reality? And why was the practice so stubbornly persisting?

The questions gnawed at her for years, and this past Spring she and a small team of researchers spent three months in traditional villages of the Kisii people, about 300 kilometres east of Nairobi, looking for answers.

They found them, and - as so often happens - they also found new and more fundamental questions about the role of women in traditional societies. In January, she's going back for answers, and you can help.

Participatory Action Research

Development efforts have a reputation for parachuting outsiders into a situation they know little about, where they offer solutions to problems they don't understand. Sometimes it works, but just as often, the problems remain when the intervention ends.

Phyll aimed to avoid that by following something called "participatory action research" (PAR), which I'd never heard of before, even though it's been around for decades and is proving to be an effective development tool.

It works by blending elements of hands-off analysis with hands-on intervention to help communities change themselves from within - but that often means starting off without clear outcomes in mind. To be effective, researchers must put their preconceptions aside and try to understand communities from the inside, and solutions are only offered after that understanding is achieved.

In this case, Phyll worked with a Dutch organization called 7Senses to find researchers from both inside the community they were studying and from Europe. They spent months in barazas (public meetings) and family gatherings, interviewing people from across the community: tribal leaders, midwives, husbands and wives - to first learn how women in the community felt about FGM, then whether they wanted to end the practice, and finally how they could achieve the goals in their own way.

The findings were promising: FGM in Kisii, they learned, is no longer the sexuality-destroying "mutilation" that's practiced in some parts of the world, but is more akin to male circumcision practiced in the United States or even the labiaplasty that so many Western women are choosing to undergo for cosmetic reasons. It's been "tamed", in a sense, by organizations like the Fulda-Mosocho Project and Vinbel Foundation, which reached out to local "multipliers" like teachers and clan elders with health-based education.

FGM still takes place in Kisii, but it's usually performed by doctors and nurses in hospitals. It's not a health issue there, and most of the women who Phyll interviewed said it's not a women's rights issue, either - which contradicts findings from other parts of the world. Time and again, in interview after interview, researchers asked women how FGM fit into the power balance between genders, and time and again the women seemed befuddled by the association. When asked about gender imbalances, they dismissed FGM and asked instead for help creating of business cooperatives.

"We want to better ourselves," said a woman named Elimelida, with emphasis on the "selves", before explaining that some NGOs had conducted workshops, but that was the extent of it.

"As soon as they left, the programs fell apart," she said.

The women knew a bit about solutions that have worked elsewhere, such as microfinance and the formation of cooperatives, but the knowledge was cursory at best and often not relevant to their situation.

"Everyone, it turns out, wanted to tell the women how to improve their status in society," wrote Phyll in her blog. "But no one asked them - or the men in their lives - what they liked about their current status, and what they wanted to improve, or how they felt they could improve it."

So now she's heading back to Kisii, with a new team of five researchers armed with a wealth of time-tested developmental lessons learned elsewhere. Their initial aim, however, isn't to teach, but to learn: to deepen the trust already developed and to better understand the gender roles within this unique society and its relationship with existing markets, businesses, NGOs, and governmental agencies to avoid the mistakes of the past and chart a path into the future.

She and the researchers are volunteering their time and covering their own costs, but she's hoping to crowdfund $7,000 for local logistics - a fairly small amount considering it's a 12-week program involving five researchers (although not all of them will be there the full 12 weeks).

That's where you can help: check out the crowdfunding campaign at the link below, and feel free to help out with as little or as much as you want, but act soon: the campaign ends the day after Christmas. She'll be starting a Facebook page as well to keep supporters up to speed, and you can join that as well.

Finally, a quick apology in advance: the platform uses a clunky payment system that sometimes doesn't recognize the drop-down credit card menu, meaning you have to click the icon for your type of card (Visa, Mater Card, etc), and sometimes you have to first click on "Ideal" to activate the credit card payment. It's annoying, but it's secure, and it's for a good cause. If you have any questions, feel free to reach out to Phyll directly at In a pinch, you can make a payment to her US or Dutch account, and she can add it into the campaign with your name on it for traceability.

How to Help

Watch the Video (Partly in Dutch)

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