Tag: FGM

Criminalisation will not stop FGM in East Africa

Since female genital mutilation (FGM) has been outlawed in Ethiopia, some rural families have been holding clandestine circumcisions, said parents at confidential focus group discussions in Ethiopia for Oxford University’s Young Lives study. Often, the ritual takes place at night in order to evade prosecution, with girls at even greater risk due to poor lighting or the use of less experienced practitioners.

As a 10-year-old, Ayu, who lives in the rural Oromia region, wanted to complete her education and become a teacher instead of getting married young. But at the age of 14 she underwent FGM and by 16 she had left school and got married.

Ayu’s mother explained that the cutting was done at Ayu’s request. “After she heard a girl insulting another who was not circumcised, my daughter came home and asked me to organise her circumcision. She told me she does not want to be insulted in the same way.” And while her mother thought Ayu was not ready for marriage at 16 she was much more concerned about the risks her daughter would face as a young woman without the protection of a husband. “We live in corrupt and dangerous times,” she said. “It is better that she is married early.”

In Somaliland, the health messages about the risks associated with FGM (sometimes referred to as FGC, female genital cutting) have led to more girls undergoing clitoridectomy (the removal of the clitoris) instead of the more extreme infibulation (which involves the removal of the clitoris as well as the narrowing of the vaginal opening by creating a covering seal). But a World Vision study, “Examining the links between the practices of FGM/C and early marriage”, found that since the pressure to stop infibulation has increased, the pressure on girls to marry young has intensified because they fear being perceived as more open to premarital sex if they have not had the procedure. As 15-year-old Faiza explained: “It is better for my dignity to have a husband and children now.”

Kenyan teenage Maasai girls attend an alternative right of passage at Kilgoris, Trans Mara district, at a ceremony organised by an anti-female genital mutilation, campaign, Cherish Others Organisation. (Pic: AFP)
Kenyan teenage Maasai girls attend an alternative right of passage at Kilgoris, Trans Mara district, at a ceremony organised by an anti-female genital mutilation, campaign, Cherish Others Organisation. (Pic: AFP)

Martha Tureti, World Vision’s gender and development co-ordinator in Kenya, believes criminalisation has failed to eradicate the practice in the country. And stand-alone interventions, such as setting up rescue centres or introducing alternative rites of passage, have not been enough to alter deeply imbedded attitudes that put a high premium on girls’ sexual reputations and premarital virginity.

“If you only focus on the girls, the community still go ahead with the cutting anyway,” Martha told us. “We realised the importance of including boys so that they understand the dangers of FGM because otherwise they still demand to marry girls who have been cut.”

In northern Kenya, World Vision has sponsored the development of rites of passage that retain traditions like teaching the girls about their future adult roles, but replace FGM with reproductive health education that includes knowledge about the effects of genital cutting. One key to success has been persuading communities to identify their own adaptations to old traditions instead of trying to impose change from outside; holding ceremonies that include public endorsements from community leaders; and offering alternative income sources to the cutters. For example, a World Vision-sponsored ceremony involving 10-year-old girls in the northern district of Naivasha included the public endorsement of a local politician, as well as pledges from former cutters that they would abandon the practice in return for the gift of some goats that would provide them with alternative means of earning a livelihood.

A clear message from both the Young Lives and the World Vision research is that legal prohibition and intensive advocacy campaigns have not been enough to eradicate FGM. This is often because families feel unable to take the social consequences of making changes that go against the norm in close-knit traditional communities. So work towards the abandonment of FGM and early marriage must engage with the whole community and address the social norms that underpin the practices.

It is difficult for outsiders to predict what unintended consequences might arise in each circumstance as every community responds to change in different ways. But the Young Lives’ focus group findings demonstrate the importance of understanding from community members why some continue practicing FGM despite prohibition. World Vision’s experience has been that change is more likely if all the different interest groups in a community are involved in a non-judgmental dialogue about which solutions will work for them.

Ultimately, strategies to prevent FGM need to engage with the root causes of both FGM and early marriage: namely the unequal status of women and men, the desire to control female sexual activity and limited economic opportunities for women and girls.

Names have been changed at the request of World Vision.

Kirrily Pells is policy officer at Oxford University’s Young Lives study of childhood poverty, and Lorriann Robinson is senior child rights policy adviser at World Vision UK

FGM in Kenya: ‘Daughters seen as cattle for sale’

There can be few women who understand both the agonies and the economics of female genital mutilation better than Margaret, a grandmother in her 70s from Pokot, northern Kenya.

Her life has spanned the clumsy colonial efforts to ban the practice, which saw it become a cultural cornerstone of the Mau Mau uprising against British rule, right through to independent Kenya’s decision to reimpose the prohibition.

She has also put more girls than she can remember under the knife. When Margaret started, the tool of choice was a curved nail; more recently this has been replaced with imported razor blades.

The work, she concedes, is gruelling: frightened young girls would typically sit naked on a rock; once done, their excised clitorises would be thrown to the birds. For the cutters, or “koko mekong”, who can earn 2 500 Kenyan shillings (£18) for each girl, it is a livelihood.

“The cutters ask me: ‘If we leave doing this thing, what will we eat?'” Margaret says. “Tell the government to give us what to eat. If it’s just workshops then it will be no use. The circumcisers will not leave their career simply because they’re being told to leave it.”

The “cut” has been outlawed in Kenya since 2001. Despite this, a public health survey in 2009 found that 27% of women had been subject to FGM. Among some ethnic groups – such as the Somalis (98%) and Masai (73%) – that figure is much higher.

A second set of laws passed in 2011 made it illegal to promote or to facilitate what used to be known as female circumcision, and stiffened penalties. But changing the law was easier than changing practice.

Among communities such as the Endorois, who live near the picturesque Lake Bogoria, the cutting season has endured. But the ban has driven it underground, according to Elijah Kipteroi, the government-appointed chief of nearby Loboi, a role he describes as part policeman, part doctor, with a dash of marriage counsellor thrown in.

“In the old days there were preparations that you could see,” Kipteroi said. “Now, because of the law, the practice is carried on in hiding. It’s happening without ceremonies.”

The laws are still seen as foreign by many Endorois, especially the male elders, says the chief. They accuse him of criminalising their culture.

Underpinning the practice is a sharply divergent vision of the roles of sons and daughters. In Kenya, a dowry is paid by the groom’s family. As a result, girls are seen as a valuable asset to their families, if they can be offered for marriage in the “right” condition.

“The daughters are seen as cattle to be sold,” said Kipteroi, who added that a bride price would be typically counted in livestock, worth perhaps as much as 30 cows. “No one will even negotiate a bride price for uncut girls.”

On the surface, communities in places such as Loboi are broadly supportive of traditions such as FGM. Uncut girls, sometimes referred to as “raw” as opposed to mutilated “ripe” women, can expect to be shunned by their neighbours. They are forced to walk for miles to fetch water so they don’t “contaminate” pumps and wells; local midwives even refuse to deliver their “unclean” babies.

Reuben Orgut, a wiry man in his 60s with a sprinkling of silver stubble, one of the elders in Sandai, is unapologetic about FGM and the economics behind it.

“When I get this dowry it’s a way to support the other siblings. It means that when my sons also marry I have something to give out.”

He says the girls who refuse to be cut and married off are “stealing” from their own families. “It is not fair since they are a source of wealth. Some who have not been circumcised leave the family without us getting the bride wealth.”

However, not everyone is so keen to defend the rite.

Changing attitudes
Joseph Kapkurere is one of a trio of local teachers who have been trying to change ingrained attitudes among pupils and parents, even if doing so comes at the cost of frequent confrontation with relatives, friends and neighbours.

Kapkurere escaped the strictures that he grew up with when he went to college in Kisumu, a city in western Kenya where female genital mutilation is not common. “I was able to question why this happens and make up my own mind,” he said.

He married a woman from another ethnic group and resisted his relatives’ entreaties to have her undergo FGM. In Kapkurere’s home community he estimates that nine out of 10 girls are mutilated. As a teacher he found that schoolgirls would tell him that their parents were arranging for them to be cut against their will. He decided to start offering sanctuary during the school holidays which were often used by parents to have the girls mutilated.

“We thought at least we can keep them in school for longer, we can buy some time and subvert the parents’ plans,” he said.

And so now, during the longer holidays, dozens of girls will stay in the sanctuary of the school in Sandai to avoid the rite of passage.

Kenyan teenage Maasai girls attend an alternative right of passage on April 19 2008 at a ceremony organised by an anti-female genital mutilation campaign, Cherish Others Organisation. (Pic: AFP)
Kenyan teenage Maasai girls attend an alternative right of passage on April 19 2008 at a ceremony organised by an anti-female genital mutilation campaign, Cherish Others Organisation. (Pic: AFP)

The Cana girls’ rescue centre, set among the dark volcanic rock, aloes and thorny acacias north of Lake Baringo, is home to more proof of the limits of legislation in changing lives.

The Rev Christopher Chochoi, a Catholic priest, set up the shelter in 2002 after praying with a young girl as she died from the rat poison she had consumed rather than return to the violent and abusive old man she had been forced to marry.

Today, it houses around 50 girls, some of whom have fled forced marriages, as well as runaways or outcasts who have refused to submit to FGM and have been ostracised by their families.

One of them is Diana (16), who came to Cana two years ago. She walked for nearly three days through the bush to avoid being married off after being pressured into being cut – a brutal procedure that left her angry and disillusioned.

“I knew I was going to be circumcised because we were being pressurised but I didn’t know it was bad and would lead to marriage afterwards,” she said.

She had been expecting a “good adventure”, she remembers ruefully, and was ignorant of what was coming when she went to see the koko mekong with four friends.

“I regret having undergone the circumcision because some of my friends, after undergoing it, bled to death. Some of them had challenges when giving birth because of age and as a result they ended up dying while giving birth.”

Chochoi’s wife, Nelly, hopes that the experience of young women such as Joan Rikono, who stayed for five years at Cana, will inspire other girls. The 25-year-old earned a scholarship at a college and returns to mentor the rescue centre’s current residents.

Nelly hopes Rikono can show the community they are wrong to think of educated girls as lost or worthless.

Nonetheless, the job of persuasion is slow and dangerous. The centre’s matriarch came to face to face with the risks two years ago when furious and armed male relatives of one of the girls stormed into the centre. They demanded that one of the girls who was due to be cut and married off be handed over. A tall woman with a strong, clear voice, she stood her ground: “I told them we don’t have any wives here, just schoolgirls.”

Daniel Howden for the Guardian