Promoting women’s rights, including access to a fair education, advocating against FGM, and economically empowering women, are cornerstones of gender equity and SDGs. Whilst measurable progress in empowering women has been made, there is still a long way to go. In this interview, we hear from Lanoi Parmuat - long term thinker, role model and founder of Ewang’an Nadede Advocacy Initiative (ENAI). ENAI–Africa’s primary mandate and focus is to build the capacity of pastoralist communities in Africa with special emphasis on gender equity and equality, sustainable food security, quality health, improved literacy and education systems, environment, resource utilisation, for sustainable development in Africa. It is guided by the vision of a healthy, food secure, good governance and developed Pastoral community in Africa.
Can you tell us a bit about your upbringing and tribe?
I am from the Maasai, an indigenous community in the south rift of Kenya. I grew up in a small village in the Mau Forest highlands until the age of 12. I went through many challenges, including distance to school and cultural encounters that suppressed girls’ rights. I was rescued by a school and a religious platform, which sheltered me for some time. Then I transferred to town with more of a cosmopolitan community.
What was your experience like as a young Maasai girl in school?
I attended a boarding school up to secondary education and became a mature girl at the age of 18 - that's why I have the spirit for championing girls’ rights. Being a Maasai girl, I can say you become, what you call a girl of two worlds. On one side, you are battling with technology advancement and other societal issues. On the other, you are a very innocent, naive girl from the village and the only thing you know is your communal spirit and culture. Being a Maasai girl was the best thing. I am so proud to be an Indigenous Maasai woman, except for those elements that suppress a child. For instance, the female circumcision and early marriages.
FGM is seen as a transition from childhood into womanhood. It is done at a very early age of 9 or 10. Then you're married at the age of 15, already having children and a husband to care for. I feel it is depriving girls’ rights because they need to have free will and free decision, whilst having parental guidance, community guidance and respect for our important cultural values. I feel that you should have that freedom to access education.
Who or what inspired you to promote the rights of young women?
I have a PhD, but that does not make me a non-indigenous woman, denying me the opportunity to serve my community. Those elements I just discussed could have hindered me in achieving my goals. That's why I'm in the community, to give back. I initiated ENAI, an African organisation that supports communities and ensures that women’s rights are realised. We give voice to indigenous communities, helping defend their God-given lands. Every human being has a right to be on his or her land and fulfil their purpose. I want to see women and girls accomplish that.
As a Maasai woman, I want girls to reach a position of free choice over what to do, who to marry, with equal opportunities as a girl from the West. Maasai girls are courageous, tough and resilient communities, they can be whoever they want in the world today.
What is the mission of the ENAI organisation and what is your role as CEO?
My role is to manage and drive the organisation, implementing decisions that I'm given by the board of directors. I need to make sure that our vision is actualised and that we are accountable to the partners who have entrusted us with funding to support our advocacy work.
Could you give an example of one of ENAI’s support schemes?
We have individuals willing to support our girls with educational scholarships, we have individuals who’ve supported our voice and we received funding from grant-making organisations. For instance, the Ford Foundation and Johnson & Johnson, have advocated for favourable policies to strengthen health systems, specifically in Kenya. In Kajiado, we’ve been training Community Health Assistance (CHMT) in developing ChisApp, a community-based information system and advanced primary healthcare at the grassroots level. We've ensured that health is a priority as an organisation through the partnership with the County Government Department of Health. We've also partnered with PAI (Population Advance International), spearheaded development of Family Planning Costed Implementation Plan for 5 years (FPCIP) on issues relating to Reproductive Health (RAMCAH) and advocated for child spacing.
Do you see gender equity improving in Kenya?
We still have issues around gender gaps and women lag behind, yet they are the primary producers. At ENAI, we've developed a social entrepreneurship programme where we enhance women’s income and support them through a saving scheme, which they can share in groups at the grassroots or household level. We've initiated an income-generating activity where women operate the dairy plant, as we know in our community milk is central to Maasai women because it’s a ‘full course meal’, with nutritional value and it enhances the economy. We add value to the milk by producing yoghurt, butter, ghee and cheese. These products reach the market, so women can enlarge their saving culture. It's through their indigenous knowledge and skills that these women can advance in the world today. We are proud of our cows; our riches are measured in their numbers. The strength we hold is in our land, food & security, and we are the best stewards of our environment.
With a population of over 40 million that need enriching, the government is also producing economic opportunities for women, such as the women’s enterprise fund and an electorate wing for women’s leadership. As an NGO, we’ve complimented the gaps within the government, but we need these policies to be customised to each unique area. There are also spaces in universities that provide opportunities for studies on women’s issues or even focus on gender development.
Are FGM and early marriages still a big issue in rural communities?
It’s still a big issue in the rural areas because culturally it is believed that it's something to celebrate, like a birthday. But there is a lot of advocacy happening and I'm proud to be part of the women who champion for anti-FGM. Today we have a policy against FGM, and I am glad to have spearheaded this from November 2011 to campaign for those rights. I'm pleased that today we have a board that the government accepted. The leaders embrace it, and they are not shying away from supporting these women. It's now a criminal offence if you are caught participating in FGM - you will serve 5 years and pay handsomely for the crime.
What key societal actions need to happen for women to access a fair education?
In our communities, we believe in our indigenous knowledge and skills. If we keep this, I feel it's something to be proud of as we can hold onto it forever. I think of all the countries today worldwide, we are the top in preserving our culture. We have our own identity in terms of language, dressing, territorial land, and we are still proud to have our governing system.
When it comes to formal education, we can still say we have not yet fully embraced it. We are trying, but there are issues of early pregnancies and early marriages, which pulls girls out of the system. Yet, we can see each community gradually accepting education, especially now that it's free.
How does climate change impact the lives of nomadic peoples?
We still have a long way to go, we’ve seen so much destruction and now it’s a global issue. We've seen our territory invaded by technology and development, where towns expand into pastoralist land. One of the impacts of the economy and accepting the devolution system is people selling their lands, which develop into industrial skyscrapers. There's a mass excavation of timber, minerals, sand and building stones. Then there are locust invasions, which are a threat to us and our food security. It's still a big issue, which is why one of the programmes supported by open society initiative focuses on land, food security and nutrition. We bring the female voice to the centre, but if there is no land or food for the cows, women become powerless. It's a big agenda and we need to protect women from changing weather patterns.
Do you see children playing an active role in achieving the SDGs?
Yes. We need children in education to get there. When it comes to health, we are championing it through nutrition. That's why we engage in community health units for universal healthcare. All these interventions help us achieve the SDGs.
How has COVID-19 affected Kenya’s most vulnerable communities and what more can be done to help?
It has affected communities and we’ve lost loved ones. We are just holding our hearts and fearing for our children as now social distancing is a big issue in schools. It has affected the productivity of women - for nine months they were not able to produce anything, economically nothing was generated and when our markets were closed, we could not sell livestock or trade across the border.
There were risks for girls and women, we couldn’t even access the family planning services and that’s why there was an increase in unplanned teenage pregnancies. There were also a lot of issues of domestic violence due to lack of food. The road to recovery is now the big focus in Kenya and is a key area where we want everybody to come on board and support our local women, especially in the indigenous communities.
What does a typical day look like as a Community Health Volunteer (CHV)?
I had the incredible opportunity to support women during that time, even when the doctors and nurses were on strike. The community volunteers depend on the traditional knowledge of the Maasai, as midwives, they help girls to deliver, they help us use herbal medicines even to suppress issues coming from COVID-19 and use traditional treatments for dislocations or bone breakages. If there are issues with headaches or stomach-aches, they can help.
The only challenge we have is addressing these issues with sanitation. There are many water-borne diseases in pastoral communities because we share the same water paths with our livestock and wildlife. In some communities, we have open defecation and no closed toilettes so when it rains the sewage gets very bad. One of the things we are doing is encouraging people to build toilettes and purify their water. We’ve done it in our community by helping women purify their own water for consumption. We continue to campaign and support our communities to address sanitation issues because it's a big problem.
Could you explain one of your greatest achievements in the last year?
We were able to distribute food to the households of those drastically affected by COVID-19. We were able to take prevention measures, find ways to cope with social distancing and used the community volunteers to reach out at the household level. It was really challenging due to the restrictions and lockdowns, but we were still able to distribute food and send messages through the social media platform and local radio stations.
We gave a lot of counselling as there were so many cases of domestic violence. We were able to get shelter for some girls in religious houses and get them counselling. We also distributed 25 motorcycles to take food, messages and get reports back from the local people.
What are you most excited about working towards this year?
Now that the world has opened up, I'll be glad to see children back to school and succeeding. I'll be very happy to see a good formula for girls who dropped out of school due to pregnancy returning and achieving their goals. I'm excited because now we have all the policies, I want to see them implemented in safeguarding and supporting the community of volunteers. I'm going to be happy at the end of this year to see all the programmes that we planned as an organisation and all that we've been able to achieve. I'll also be pleased to have more partners supporting our initiative.
Finally, when are you are at your best or happiest?
I was happy to see Kamala win the election in the US and now that we are going towards an election, I will be glad to see more women in power voicing gender issues. My best moment will be to see every woman and girl prevail in a balanced society. That is why it is so important to achieve an all-round healthy environment.
Rosanna Pycraft, Journalist
Lanoi ene Parmuat, Board Secretary and Executive Director at ENAI