Taking Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting Out of the Cultural Mosaic of Kenya

The rate of FGM/C is declining in Theraka villages where Ntano Na Mugambo or circumcision with words, is substituting for a cut.
  • 22 April 2010

NAIROBI — When Lina Kilimo ran for the Kenya Parliament in 2002 on a platform of peace, development and ending female genital mutilation/cutting, her opponents claimed that as an uncircumcised woman, she was unfit to hold office.

She said they were amazed that she was bold enough to speak out frankly on such a sensitive issue. But she turned culture to her advantage, invoking a myth that if you want to end fighting between groups, you should send an uncircumcised girl to make peace.

The fact that she won, and is now one of the sponsors of legislation to expand legal sanctions against FGM/C, which was once almost universally practised in her Marakwet community, is one indication that attitudes toward the practice are shifting in Kenya.

"Now girls see that they can be uncut and even become a Member of Parliament," she said.

Persistance amidst change

FGM/C was traditionally practised in all but five of Kenya's 43 ethnic groups. Its prevalence is diminishing countrywide, especially among younger, more urban and more educated women. Latest data (preliminary reports of the 2008-2009 Demographic and Health Survey) show that FGM/C has declined from from 38 per cent in 1998 to 27.1 per cent. The statistics for younger girls are more encouraging: Data show that nearly half of women ages 45-49 had been cut compared to only 15 per cent of those age 15-19.

But the practice, condemned by international organizations as well as the Kenya government, is still nearly universal in some communities, including among the Kisii, Maasai, Somali, Samburu and Kuria ethnic groups. It is often considered a prerequisite for a good marriage. Newspapers occasionally carry stories about groups of young women being forced to undergo FGM/C, or leaving home to escape the practice.

FGM/C has been entrenched in some of these communities for centuries. But the UNFPA-UNICEF Joint Programme is aiming for its abandonment in Kenya, and in 16 other countries, in a generation. Perhaps nowhere is the task more complex than in Kenya's patchwork of varied cultures, traditions, ethnic groups, religions, languages and social norms.

Different approaches in different contexts

Within the country, the practice ranges from relatively mild excision or prick performed by traditional circumciser or under medical supervision, to a brutal cutting away of the external sexual organs, followed by binding of the legs to form a scar that serves as a physical barrier to sexual penetration.

Interventions need to be strategically targeted, based on the specific meanings associated with it in different communities, according to Christine Ochieng, the National Coordinator of the programme for UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund. "One form of intervention will not work everywhere in this country," she said. "It depends on why they do it."

Among the Maasai, Meru, Marakwet and other ethnic groups, the practice is embedded within an elaborate ritual of initiation into womanhood. Among the outlawed Mungiki sect of the Kikuyu, the practice signifies a return to pre-Colonial traditions, and is sometimes forced on women as a form of intimidation or retaliation. For the Abugisii, the practice is usually performed under medical supervision and confers social standing and prestige. Among the ethnic Somalis in the North East Province who submit young girls to the most severe form, the practice is associated with religion, culture and chastity. Hygiene, beautification, tradition and honour are other reasons cited in a number of communities. It is practiced by Christians, Moslems and animists.

Almost everywhere, FGM/C is linked to fear and control of female sexuality. "So many reasons are given, sometimes they hide behind culture, sometimes behind religion," said Zeinab Ahmed, who runs the Joint Programme in the country's North East Province. "In the end, it's all about controlling women."

Tremendous pressure to conform

In groups where prevalence is 90 per cent or more, pressure to conform to social norms is fierce, and defying them can mean a kind of social death. The difficulty in getting parents to abandon it is they believe they are acting in their child's best interest. "They don't mean to harm their children," said Professor Margaret Kamar, another Member of Parliament who actively opposes FGM/C and is one of the sponsors of the new legislation against it. "Everyone wants the best for their children. Many mothers fear their girls will be excommunicated from society."

Members of Parliament, Margaret Kamar and Lina Kilimo, are key figures in strengthening prohibitions against FGM/C.

Social exclusion is a more immediate and tangible threat than punishment under the law. "Right now, female genital mutilation is not outlawed for women above 18 years. It is prohibited under the Children's Act of 2001, but that only protects girls under 18," said Christine, who is working with parliamentarians on the new law. The Children's Act, which is currently being reviewed, also has a number of loopholes and has rarely resulted in serious punishment. In any case, laws cannot generally be enforced unless they enjoy significant community support.

The proposed new bill could help the increasing number of girls and women who do not want to submit to the practice, said Christine. It can also send a signal that social norms are changing, bring the subject out into the open and give cover to parents or girls who don't want to go through it.

"The new law will help girls to say 'no', and make people think twice. But we really have to bring ownership to the community, otherwise it will just go underground," said Ms. Kilimo.

Community dialogue and ownership of the decision to abandon FGM/C is, in fact, the core strategy of the Joint Programme.

Working from within cultures

The strategy recognizes that real change needs to come from within communities themselves, through a process of dialogue and debate, in which individuals, empowered with information, have an opportunity to challenge social norms. The aim is to leverage social dynamics, which are constantly in flux.

Information about the medical and psychological harm the practice can cause can help inform such dialogues, as can discussions of human rights. These discussions often take place over weeks or months, and address FGM/C not as a standalone issue – which can create suspicion and resistance — but within a broader context of health, human rights and gender-based violence. The Joint Programme, in partnership with the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Development and other partners, has trained more than 400 community facilitators on how to carry out dialogues (see box below) that eventually encourage communities to recognize that FGM/C violates a girl's rights.

However, getting people to give priority to such issues can be a difficult sell, especially in Kenyan communities that are still reeling from the shock of the 2007/ 2008 post-election violence, an increasing number of weather-related crises, and food and water shortages.

After four years of drought, as many as a third of Kenya's nomadic pastoralists have lost all their livestock and been forced to settle down on the outskirts of town, without skills that translate well into a different economy. With their very survival at stake, abandoning FGM/C is not a priority for many. "FGM/C is the last thing on their minds, so they ask, 'Why bother about it?' " said Zeinab.

Public declarations give people permission to change

But there have been some notable successes. One hallmark of success is a community-wide declaration announcing to the world that social conventions have changed. Last August, at a large ceremony held in a public stadium, the powerful Meru elders from 12 regions signed a document affirming the total abandonment of FGM/C in their territories.

The declaration came a day after 364 girls graduated from an initiation ceremony – an alternative rite of passage without FGM/C – conducted by the Catholic Diocese of Meru. Similar alternative rites are being carried out in other communities as well, as a way to maintain important cultural rituals and values, while rejecting the harmful element.

Professor Kamar was enthusiastic about a Marakwet graduation ceremony she had attended in Narok. The ceremony followed a week-long period of seclusion during which girls were taught, in the traditional way, about sexuality, dealing with men, and expectations of them as women. "Everything but the cut," as she put it. Going through this coming-of-age process honoured the tradition as it conferred status on the girls, she said.

"We want to do away with the cut, but maintain other parts of the process that people value and support," said Professor Kamar. While the first 'no-cut' initiation attracted only a small group of girls, the second attracted 130 girls from several villages, she said. The ceremony was a powerful one she said, with the girls emerging from their no-cut initiation looking beautiful and parents weeping to see their girls suddenly transformed into women.

"It's not just about the cut, it's about maturing into womanhood," she said.

— Janet Jensen

Gender Minister Esther Murugi & M aendeleo Ya Wanawake Chairperson Rukia Subow join traditional dancers during the declaration against FGM. 

Guiding and Facilitating Community Dialogues

Encouraging a community to abandon an age-old ritual does not happen overnight. It is most likely to occur within a context of general community empowerment, according to Zeinab Ahmed, UNICEF Kenya Child Protection Specialist, who works with the Joint Programme in the North East Province of Kenya, where the most severe form of FGM/C is almost universally practised.

Ideally, community dialogues unfold over the course of a couple of days or even weeks and embrace a range of development issues. Three or four people may help facilitate, including a religious leader who commands respect, and a health worker who can expound on the adverse effects of FGM/C and a child rights facilitator who puts the FGM/C debate within the context of human rights. dispense basic medicines and nutritional supplements. Partnership with trusted and respected development partners, such as WomanKind Kenya or Maendeleo ya Wanawake, organizations with deep roots throughout the region, is also a key to success.

"Unless some development is going on already in the community, to talk only about FGM/C will be a disaster, especially during drought when pastoralist communities lack food and water," said Zeinab Ahmed.

How are things going, the community is asked. How is your health care? Your access to water? How are your girls doing?

When serious issues are brought up, facilitators promise to call on their networks for action – a bore hole drilled, a mobile health clinic visit, extra food for the children.

As the discussion proceeds, the concept of rights – the rights of pregnant women , the right to a good name, the right of a child to be breast-fed for six months – is introduced. "We also reflect on some of our cultures which are discriminatory," said Zeinab. "In rural areas, when a boy is born , women ululate and joy is in the air. If a girl is born, silence greats her -unwelcome to the world," she said, adding, "We don’t make this a complex issue, but all these things come up."

Breaking the community into separate groups of men and women, and by different age groups, can be helpful in opening up the discussion, which builds on positive cultural values.

"We talk about the fact that we have a good culture. We love our children. We respect our elders and take care of them in old age. These are values we want to retain. But practices that go against our women and our children must change," said Zeinab.

The conversations are informed by religious leaders explaining that FGM/C is not a religious requirement and by explanations, and sometimes even showing disturbing graphic images or videos, depicting the medical harm and brutality of FGM/C as it is practised in the region district.

"We let the contradictions emerge. When you create an environment for debate and dialogue, new ideas can sink in," she said.

"The approach is very important," said Monica Onyango a policewoman who has also been trained as a community facilitator. "You have to approach it very casually. If you go there as an officer, and tell them it is wrong, they will hide it."

The process is something that is being refined and practiced in pilot communities in the province, Zeinab said, with the hope that changes there will have a catalytic effect and result in lasting change.



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