Female genital mutilation (FGM) remains very common in East African communities and, despite being a form of gender-based violence, it is still an ongoing cultural practice with millions of girls in Africa and around the world being put at risk every year.
Kenya has faced an uphill battle in trying to bring this form of violence to an end. While the government has implemented policies to prevent FGM, and ultimately eradicate it from the country, these laws have faced mass criticism from supporters of cutting, some even showing outward defiance against the law.
The country has an ambitious goal to end FGM by 2022 and, as this deadline fast approaches, citizens and activists have taken it upon themselves to help stop the violence and to stand up for girls’ bodily autonomy.
One such citizen is 21-year-old Stacy Owino, a Kenyan computer science and mathematics student who co-developed an app that aims to save girls from experiencing FGM by putting them in touch with authorities and life-saving services near them.
Owino developed the app when she was still in high school, as part of Kenya’s annual Technovation Challenge in 2018, alongside four other girls, Cynthia Otieno, Purity Achieng, Macrine Atieno, and Ivy Akinyi. Together they dubbed themselves “The Restorers,” and are led by Dorcas Owino, the director at Kenyan innovation hub, Lakehub Foundation.
Not only is Owino a young powerhouse in STEM working to protect women and girls, but she is also a member of the Youth Sounding Board for the European Commission, representing Africa and helping to guide the commission’s perspectives on future decisions.
Global Citizen spoke to Owino ahead of the Young Activists Summit, where she was honoured as part of a small group of young activists around the world for her work standing up against FGM.
It’s been three years since you and the fellow Restorers created the iCut App. What’s the reaction to it been like in Kenya, and globally?
When we started we were in high school, I was in my final year, that is grade 12. When we were coming up with this application, at that point, I should've been concentrating more on my final exam.
There were mixed reactions at first. There were some people who were like, “Oh, this can be cool.” And then there are some people who are like, “I don't think this is what you should be concentrating on right now.” Of which even the school itself was a little bit 50/50, about grade 12 students participating in the challenge.
And I remember when I first told my classmates. After Technovation was launched, we came back from the launch, and they were like, “So what solution are you guys working on?” I remember when I told them I'm doing something on female genital mutilation they were like, “How does that work? How do you get female genital mutilation into a mobile application?”
Internally as a team we were also wondering which type of gap have we identified in female genital mutilation? Because there are activists, there have been activists before us. But then what gap exists? What has been the biggest challenge? That is when we realised, there is a problem when girls want to contact authorities.
And, also when authorities want to assist them, reach out to them. That is the type of problem we had recognised and we wanted to solve.
Then there's also the community. Because remember, we are challenging culture, culture is not something you just challenge, you don't wake up in the morning and say “no, this is bad.” And more so, coming from a community that does not even practice that culture itself becomes a little bit difficult.
I remember, at one point, we had a man come to our school and tell our principal to make us stop what we're doing, because we don't understand what the culture in genital mutilation is. But then, obviously, we didn't listen to him.
The international community has really helped and has really amplified our work. And I think that is the type of encouragement we’ve always needed, those affirmations of what you're doing is really great. Even the activists, local activists here on the ground in Kenya, say that if we had this sooner, maybe less girls would have been statistics.
Can you explain how the app works, and how you’ve made it user-friendly?
When you download the app, first of all, one of the things we have already in place is that it can pick up your location. That narrows down to the list of rescue centres and police stations and health facilities that deal with survivors of female genital mutilation.
Also when you have it, you have a distress button. And what you can do with that is you can speak to someone directly, and you also have a message feature where you are able to send a message. So for example, we know around August to December, that's a big season for female genital mutilation when the calendar is about to end. If that is such the case, then you're able to send a message saying something like, “In the next two weeks the people in this village are planning female genital mutilation.”
But then the call may also be something very serious, like, “Hey, I just heard this is about to happen this evening, are you able to come assist?” And then we're also planning on not only linking them with police stations and hospitals, we're also doing that for local activists, because that is something we came to realise — that people trust people they know.
But then you also have another feature, which we feel is very important, because not everyone in this in the world understands what female genital mutilation is. We have a feature just to inform people on what it is and the types that exist, and also the effects that female genital mutilation have on the health of women and girls. Then we also have a donate feature where you can assist, if you can.
How did the five of you decide FGM was the issue you wanted to tackle through your app innovation?
After brainstorming for Technovation we came together and decided, “You know what, we are passionate about female genital mutilation, and we want to work on it.” For me, the reason why I chose it was because I remember I had seen a documentary on TV when I was in primary school. And I remember they showed that and I was like, “This is so unfortunate to happen to a girl.” The age I was meant, if I was from that community, I maybe would have been mutilated.
I realised that I'm in a position to actually make some change, and if I'm in a position to help someone then why not go for it? What would stop me? I’m sure other members of the team have reasons why they chose female gential mutilation, but that's my reason.
FGM is still a vivid reality for many women and girls in Africa. What do you think needs to happen for that to change?
I feel that there needs to be mass education of the effects of female genital mutilation. But then remember, this is a cultural thing. So it means that the people who practice it actually believe in its good. It's very patriarchal, in its own way, because then they're saying, “If we cut women, then their sexual libido goes down, and they stop being promiscuous,” to which, we can always just be like, "Hey, I'm from the lower community, we don't do it. And we are not promiscuous.”
I think there's the need for mass education in communities that actually do practice it, and also in communities that do not, because then people come together.
Kenya actually has taken the step to enforce policies against mutilation, such that you can be prosecuted in court. And our president has launched “No FGM by 2022.” Hopefully, that will work. Fingers crossed.
If you could speak to world leaders on protecting women’s rights or gender equality, what’s the one thing you’d want to say to them?
One thing I’d tell our leaders is that we elected you to protect us. We elected you because we felt you're in a position to actually make change and have an impact in our communities. What type of policy are you going to come to us with? And will you see it to an end? Will you see it to completion? I’d tell leaders to evaluate their own values, and what they promised the people, and then really self-reflect and see if that is the type of work they have actually put in.
What advice would you give girls to help them follow their dreams of working in STEM?
The advice I would give somebody is, just start. That is also the advice I was given. I remember I was like “I really want to learn to code” and then someone was like, “Just get a laptop and start.” They told me that you need to have that fire in yourself first before someone else can help you. So that if they see initiative, then they're able to assist.
People will say that there are a lot of women empowerment spaces or women in technology, but then in my office, I am one in seven men. You cannot really say that we will achieve bridging that gap. What I can say is just start, it may be difficult, it might look very ambiguous at first. But then when you're able to just start, then you'll start seeing a bit of light here and there.
Why is it important for girls, especially girls of colour and girls from Africa, to take up those spaces?
Remember in these spaces, decisions are being made. Let me give you an example. With tech right now, there may be algorithms that check whether someone should have a pay increase, so if everything we teach the machine is to just recognise men, men, men, men, men — then what happens when you're a woman? We are teaching the machine to be sexist, and to be racially biased. And so it's really important because these are the spaces in which decisions are made. It's in this space where the future of women and girls resides. It's really important that we have these voices, and we can represent ourselves.
Something else the world needs to know is that things are changing, and us as African youth are really taking up these spaces. We're not going to let you tell us about us. We will tell you about ourselves.
Who are the women you look up to?
One of them is Dorcas, who will be accompanying me to the Young Activists Summit. Dorcas, the co-founder of Lakehub, is the lady who introduced code to me and ever since I've just loved what she does and how she does it.
I also admire Nadia Murad and Malala Yousafzai. These women who are really empowering the world. I look at the spaces Malala has been in and I'm seeing myself in those places. I'm just like, “One day, I'm gonna meet her.” There was a book, Know Your Rights and Claim Them by Angelina Jolie. We helped co-author a bit of the book, on female genital mutilation. I saw Malala give a shout out to it. And I was like, “You know what? At least she's read about me!”
What can we expect from you at the Young Activists Summit and other global spaces that you’re hoping to occupy?
People need to understand that female genital mutilation does not only happen in Africa, it's not an African problem. It's not an Islamic problem. It's a global problem. I have known of people who come in from Europe to get circumcised in Africa, because it's more “lenient” here.
I think this is time for me to ask our leaders, what is it that they're doing for us? Ideally, we should not be campaigning for this, these things that should be there. It's a human right. If we're all respecting human rights, then there's no need for human rights defenders.
Women’s rights are human rights — and they must be promoted and protected. This 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, from Nov. 25 to Dec. 10, we’re asking Global Citizens to join us for our #16Days Challenge, to take a simple action each day that will help you learn more about women’s rights, bodily autonomy, and gender violence online.
You’ll start important conversations with your loved ones, advocate on social media for women’s and girls’ right to their own bodies, support women-owned businesses in your community, sign petitions to support bodily autonomy, and more. Find out more about the #16Days Challenge and start taking action here.