FGM in Kenya: Outlawed, Not Eradicated

Djibouti has just ratified the African Union's Maputo Protocol banning female genital mutilation. But activists in Kenya, which outlawed FGM in 2001, warn that the engrained cultural practice is easier to outlaw than to eradicate.

Fausia Hassan an FGM victim

NAIROBI, Kenya (WOMENSENEWS)-Fausia Hassan, now 13, remembers the moment, on a quiet Sunday night, when her mother summoned her.

"My daughter, come in," her mother said nearly four years ago, summoning her into a room in their house. "My daughter tomorrow is your D-day; you will be circumcised," her mother blurted out.

The following morning, she recalls, she was made to undergo infibulation, or Type III, the most extreme and brutal form of female genital mutilation. Performed without any anesthesia, the clitoris and inner labia are cut and the walls of the outer labia are sewn together. Afterwards "the girl or woman's legs are generally bound together from the hip to the ankle so she remains immobile for approximately 40 days to allow for the formation of scar tissue," according to a U.S. State Department description of the ordeal.

An operation to reopen the vagina-de-infibulation-is often performed ritualistically before marriage or childbirth.

"Recutting before intercourse is traditionally undertaken by the husband or one of his female relatives using a sharp knife or a piece of glass," according to World Health Organization information about Type III. "Modern couples may seek the assistance of a trained health professional, although this is done in secrecy, possibly because it might undermine the social image of the man's virility."

Hassan, who grew up in Eldoret Town, in the Rift Valley province that runs down the center of the country, says that during the procedure she cried until she lost her voice.

She is just one of the many Kenyan girls and women who have undergone female genital mutilation after the passage of the Children's Act law. Passed by Parliament in 2001, the Children's Act outlaws various forms of violation against children, including FGM, for females 18 and younger.

About 14 other countries in Africa have passed similar laws against FGM. Djibouti joined the group on Thursday by ratifying the African Union's Maputo Protocol on female genital mutilation, which requires its member states to ban the practice. But activists in Kenya-sometimes identified as a leader in the anti-FGM campaign-say the country still has a long way to go.

Stronger Law Needed

Beth Mugo, assistant minister for higher and technical education, criticizes the current Kenyan legislation for leaving women over the age of 18 with no legal grounds to resist FGM. "A bill needs to be enacted to criminalize the practice completely," says Mugo.

Minister of State for Home Affairs Linah Jebii Kilimo says the practice is still widespread. She estimates that 38 percent of Kenyan women have undergone FGM and that the figure soars to 80 or 90 percent for girls in some of the more rural districts.

"Despite legal instruments already in place, the government has not yet set all structures in place to fully implement their provisions," says Kilimo, who spoke with Women's eNews last September in Nairobi, during a conference about promoting the Maputo Protocol, part of the African Charter on Human and People's Rights that outlaws any form of abuse on women and was adopted in August 2003.

Kilmo says politicians are doing little to actively combat FGM because the practice is still so culturally ingrained and esteemed in Kenyan society. "Despite their actions in December 2001, Kenyan parliamentarians have showed reluctance to discuss FGM," she says. "Indeed it appears that politicians fear losing voters. As a result those who speak against it risk isolation by their peers."

Unlike other gender issues, such as access to education, FGM is viewed as cultural practice, which, if threatened, endangers the cohesion of an entire community, says Rukia Subow, vice chair of Maendeleo ya Wanawake Organization-or MYWO-a leading Kenyan women's rights group based in Nairobi. "FGM is considered most significant rite of passage to adulthood, enhancing tribal cohesion, providing girls with important recognition from peers."

Rite Now Cloaked in Secrecy

For centuries, FGM was performed openly in Kenya, sometimes as part of public village ceremonies. After being outlawed, however, it went underground. To the dismay of many anti-FGM advocates who worked to dissuade midwives from performing the traditional rite, it is conducted under a cloak of secrecy in more clinical environments, such as rural and small-city hospitals. There are even accounts of mobile FGM clinics, in which nurses and clinicians move from village to village, easily eluding police.

The practice is widely believed to increase a girl's chances of marriage, prevent promiscuity and promote easy childbirth. Women who do not circumcise their daughters run the risk of being seen as irresponsible, immoral and imitators of Western culture.

Pamela Mburia, program coordinator of Amwik, an association of media women, says the fight against FGM is often left up to people with no commitment to it. Law enforcers, she says, can easily be related to someone who still performs the illegal rite.

"Even those who are well schooled and influence the thinking of people in these communities believe in it and take girls for FGM," says Mburia. "How then do you expect a chief or sub-chief to enforce the law in such a situation?"

Ochieng' Ogodo is a journalist based in Nairobi.