Five teenage girls from Kenya are headed to California to make their dream of ending female genital mutilation (FGM) in their country a reality.
The bright teens invented an app called i-Cut, which provides girls with easy access to legal and medical assistance before and after FGM. The app has earned them a place in the 2017 Technovation Challenge, a competition taking place in Silicon Valley later this month that helps girls around the world become tech entrepreneurs.
FGM, a non-medical procedure that involves the total or partial removal of a woman's external genitalia, is illegal in Kenya. But it's still practiced because of its cultural significance as a rite of passage and prerequisite for marriage.
Through the i-Cut app, girls who are being forced to undergo the procedure can alert authorities with a distress call. Survivors can also report their violations to local authorities and find local rescue centers where they can get help — all with the touch of a button.
The app's interface has five different buttons: "help," "rescue," "report," "information on FGM," and "donate and feedback."
— Technovation (@technovation) July 5, 2017
"FGM is a big problem affecting girls worldwide and it is a problem we want to solve," Stacy Owino, one of the app's creators, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Owino and her teammates — Cynthia Otieno, Purity Achieng, Mascrine Atieno, and Ivy Akinyi — call themselves "The Restorers." It's their mission to "restore hope to hopeless girls," Otieno said.
The teens are the only African team whose app was accepted in this year's Technovation Challenge, sponsored by Google, Verizon, and the United Nations. Winners will receive $15,000 to help them continue their app's development.
"This whole experience will change our lives," Owino said. "Whether we win or not, our perspective of the world and the possibilities it has will change for the better."
"We just have to use this opportunity as a stepping stone to the next level," Akinyi added.
According to a UNICEF report, more than 200 million women and girls worldwide have undergone female genital mutilation. An estimated one in four Kenyan women have undergone FGM. And while the increase of education and dialogue over recent years has decreased the occurrence of FGM, it's still a human rights violation yet to be eradicated.
i-Cut has the potential to be a vital resource in the fight against FGM. The procedure leaves girls vulnerable to a multitude of physical and psychological health risks. Girls who have been cut are less likely to finish school. Their employment prospects decrease significantly because of the correlation between FGM and early marriage and pregnancy. In worst case scenarios, the procedure can lead to death.
The hope is that the app will allow girls to decide their own destinies, but it also raises safety concerns. FGM is a deep-rooted social practice handed down from parent to child. While the app could save a girl from FGM, it might also cause family rifts and expose her to more violence. With that in mind, the app might be most effective when introduced to communities alongside educational empowerment programs.
The girls' Luo tribe in Kenya has denounced the practice of FGM, but they still know girls who have been cut. They spoke of a fellow classmate who left school after the procedure.
"We were very close, but after she was cut she never came back to school," Achieng said. "She was among the smartest girls I knew."
With the i-Cut app, "The Restorers" hope they can bring the number of women affected by FGM down to zero.