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Girls Cut Down: Working to stop FGM in Kenya

By: Crystal Corman

February 6, 2016

Most girls look forward to school holidays, but for some girls in Kenya, this break from school is used for a ritual marking their transition from girlhood to woman. During August and December, many girls undergo what is known in Kenya as female circumcision.

Today is the International Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM (female genital mutilation). In terms of percentage of girls and women affected, Kenya ranks 17 out of 29 countries in Africa that carry out the practice, but the numbers are decreasing over time. In 1998 38 percent of women and girls aged 15-49 had undergone the cut compared to 21 percent in 2014. There are regional differences, with 98 percent prevalence in North Eastern region, and rural girls and women are more likely to experience FGM. The prohibition of FGM Act was passed in 2011 and reports indicate arrests have increased, especially during December holidays.

Activists working to curtail this harmful rite of passage have learned that changing culture is challenging. UNFPA states “To promote the abandonment of FGM, coordinated and systematic efforts are needed, and they must engage whole communities and focus on human rights and gender equality. These efforts should emphasize societal dialogue and the empowerment of communities to act collectively to end the practice.” In Kenya, the practice is found across religious and ethnic lines (see graph of 2014 KDHS here), thus efforts have been collaborative and engaged faith leaders to transform norms.

Somali Kenyan girls are among the most likely to undergo the cut and as young as four years old (though age six to seven is most common). Maryam Abdi has worked with the Population Council in collaboration with UNFPA and UNICEF to engage communities in Wajir and Garissa, including outreach with religious scholars. In an attempt to inform dialogue and hopes of reaching a consensus, symposia introduced evidence from essential Islamic documents and texts, including Shari’ah guidelines, that contradicted the practice. Change has been slow however, with some scholars changing their minds but unwilling to speak out publicly against the practice.

Sr. Ephigenia Gachiri, a Loreto sister, has been fighting FGM in Kenya for over 16 years. She has authored an alternative rite of passage, recognizing the importance of ritual, using Christian language and approach. Girls participate in weeklong seminars concluding with Mass. Sr. Ephigenia has trained a staff of 30 to lead community workshops. She emphasizes that no one can force communities to stop the practice; instead they must be engaged in dialogue that includes learning about female anatomy and the physical harm caused by the cut. Additionally, the program addresses traditional religious beliefs, including people's fear of curses if FGM is stopped.

The National Council of Churches in Kenya (NCCK) gathered more than 60 Protestant pastors from FGM prevalent areas in December 2014. Some Protestant denominations in Kenya have been speaking out against FGM for over 100 years. However this gathering noted that important challenges persist. They articulated new strategies including socializing both girls and boys from earlier ages that FGM is bad. Preachers were also encouraged to speak against the practice and lift up role model women who have not undergone the cut.

Tearfund partnered with Mpanzi, a Kenya non-profit founded by survivors of FGM, to conduct research among the Maasai and Kisii communities in southwest Kenya. They found that the practice is highly regarded and favored among men and women, and the practice has been woven into faith life. Of those interviewed, 89 percent of respondents said religious practices such as prayer, thanksgiving, and worship continued to be a central part of FGM activities. Spiritual and religious leaders offered blessings to the initiates. The study generated various recommendations for faith actors, groups, and institutions. Among those against the practice, one cited scripture: “Real circumcision is in the heart, a thing not of the letter, but of the spirit” (Romans 2:29).

These examples are a few among many, illustrating different approaches and collaboration with faith actors or religious values. Making the practice illegal and campaigns to raise awareness about its risks seem to have impact, but it is slow going. In some instances, communities have changed cultural norms around “the cut” but instead of stopping it, they do it secretly or at earlier ages. For example, some girls cross borders or ceremonies are quietly done at night. And while some have argued to shift the ritual to medical personnel, which is safer, this allows girl’s rights to be violated and perpetuates sexual control.

The fight to end FGM in Kenya is far from over, and the collective action and engagement of all in the community is essential. This includes religious leaders. Above all it means framing the value of a girl and the respect for her body and reproductive health in line with religious values.