Meet Valentine Nkoyo; the woman who’s been fighting tirelessly against FGM (Female Genital Mutilation), changing the lives of women locally and around the world through her activism. Her organisation, the Mojatu Foundation, has lead the way in declaring Nottingham as the first city in the UK to have a zero tolerance to FGM, and has joined with Farmeco Community Care Farm in Screveton to host an area where people can pay their respects to victims of the practice. We met Valentine at the farm to find out more about what she does...
Growing up in a Kenyan Maasai community, Valentine noticed that she wasn’t getting the same educational opportunities as her brothers. All she wanted was to go to school and learn. She knew that speaking to her father would be difficult, so she decided to write him a poem instead. She recalls saying: “‘Dad, why am I different from my brothers, why are they in school and I am not?’ And for the first time my father opened his arms and embraced me. He said ‘I will make sure you get the best education’.”
Valentine finds art to be a useful tool in helping FGM survivors, as it can be used to talk about experiences, as well as being enjoyable. Valentine has been using art since a young age; she has a passion for poetry and it’s brought new opportunities about for her. Sadly, a few months after exercising to her right to education, she lost her father to cancer and took it upon herself to not only to support her immediate family, but to invest in other girls and women.
When Valentine moved to Nottingham in 2014 to study for her Master of Business, she contacted an FGM specialist and was shocked when she heard that up to 200 cases of FGM were recorded in Nottingham alone. “These are high numbers,” says Valentine. “I was thinking ‘What is happening here? Who are these survivors? Who is supporting them?’” She noticed that nothing was being done, so began writing to politicians, and created an FGM steering committee, which became the core of the Mojatu Foundation.
The organisation’s aim is to challenge and change the media coverage of specific communities; including African communities, refugees and asylum seekers. Their magazine publishes six issues a year, both in print and online, and focuses on community media, health, education, training and gender empowerment, with the aim of bringing communities together by celebrating diverse cultures.
Valentine does not refer to FGM as a cultural practice but as a tradition, because the moment we use the term “culture”, we start to demonize an entire community. “Culture is something very positive that should be celebrated,” says Valentine.
According to UNICEF, FGM is “all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.” Valentine says it’s a traumatic experience that can lead to infections, severe bleeding, pain during menstruation and difficulties in childbirth, as well as being detrimental to women’s confidence. FGM is generally performed on girls as young as three and as old as seventeen, depending on the community they belong to.
According to the World Health Organisation, it’s estimated that more than 200million girls and women alive today have undergone female genital mutilation worldwide and there are an estimated 3million girls at risk of undergoing the procedure every year.
Many communities in North Africa, the Middle East, and East Africa consider FGM a rite of passage and a representation of a girl entering womanhood, with the practice connected to child marriage. However, it’s not just limited to those parts of the world, with FGM practised privately in the UK. Although it’s been illegal in the UK since 1985, it doesn’t stop families from sending their daughters abroad, or flying someone in to perform the cutting.
Valentine’s motivation and strength to fight against FGM started when she was living in her Maasai community in Kenya; her community was actively practicing FGM for decades. She says “about 73% of the total population of women have gone through it, but that’s changing now thanks to people speaking out and standing up against some of these social injustices.” Progress has been made; many families including her own have banned FGM. Valentine believes that they should still celebrate traditions like the positive aspects of the rite of passage – which involve teaching a girl how to cook and be a wife – but they should get rid of the cutting practices.
2017 saw Nottingham become the first city in the UK to take a zero-tolerance stance towards FGM, all thanks to the work done by Mojatu and the community leaders of Nottingham. But despite the huge success for Nottingham, a lot more work has to be done for the rest of the UK and worldwide.
Community involvement is key to tackling FGM. Mojatu speaks to different members of community and educates them on the dangers of the practice through facts and statistics, and the organisation is growing incredibly with the support of many people: “We started with three people in our office in March of 2013,” says Valentine. “As we speak now, we have more than 80 members from more than 27 different countries where FGM is practised.”
Mojatu offers one-to-one support, counselling and therapy work for FGM survivors. Some of this important work takes place at the Ecocentre Community Care Farm in Screveton, Nottinghamshire, owned by David Rose; visitors can pet and feed the lambs, take walks and have a place where they can escape from city life.
David met Valentine at the Kenya Day event he held on his farm, where hundreds of people turned up. After hearing about the dangers of FGM, he decided to donate a huge piece of land to the campaign, and over 4,000 trees were planted. People can adopt a tree and write a personal message on a plaque to dedicate to their lost loved ones.
Mojatu has also been involved in the University of Nottingham’s research work including two projects based on the experiences of FGM survivors, looking into access to healthcare as well as healthcare providers.
Valentine shares information about an upcoming project for Mojatu with excitement. The Maasai Cricket warriors from her community in Kenya will be coming to the UK from Thursday 16 August to Saturday 1 September. The amateur cricket players, who play in their traditional attire, have been using their hunting skills in cricket and raising awareness of HIV, wildlife conservation and ending FGM. Collectively, they’ve spoken to community elders: “The Maasai men said that they will not marry the girls if they are cut,” says Valentine. “Who doesn’t want their daughters to get married?” The efforts of the warriors are paying off and community elders are starting to change their minds.
Valentine has many plans for the next few years, like setting up a scholarship programme for girls and women in Kenya, so they’re able to access education and set up small businesses, and she’ll be pursuing a PhD to develop these plans on a larger scale. Mojatu also has partnerships in Burkina Faso, The Gambia, Somaliland and Kenya, and Valentine hopes to see the foundation registered in those countries. Meanwhile, the FGM campaign, and the wider work of the Mojatu Foundation, continue to change the perspectives of communities, encouraging them to keep and celebrate their culture without any harmful and degrading practices.
Mojatu Foundation, 167 Alfreton Road, NG7 3JR. 0115 845 7009
Mojatu Foundation website