Kenya's long battle against female cicumcision

Posted: 31 October 2000

Author: Isabel Mbugua

Author Info: Isabel Mbugua is a freelance journalist and People & the Planet correspondent in Kenya.

Female circumcision, also known as Female Genetial Mutilation (FGM), is on the increase in Kenya, threatening the health of thousands of young girls. Here Isabel Mbugua explains why.

There is a sharp increase in the number of girls and women undergoing circumcision in Kenya. In Central province, 43 per cent of women are circumcised while in Meru district the percentage is 54 per cent. In Marsabit district of north eastern Kenyan it is reported that 100 per cent of women undergo circumcision.

These new statistics were disclosed this year at a seminar to launch the National Plan of Action for the Elimination of Female Genital Mutilation, co-ordinated by the Ministry of Health. Most communities keep the practice secret and health workers have been accused of performing the operation in their private clinics.

In Central Province the resurgence of female circumcision is closely linked to a Gikuyu revival movement that advocates African cultural renaissance for Kenya's largest ethnic group.

In Kenya members of parliament, also known as the law makers, are responsible for development at constituency level. When a bill to stop the practice of female circumcision was introduced in parliament several years ago, it was defeated by a big majority. Even a female member of parliament voted against it. Her excuse, echoed by most MPs, was that if she voted to outlaw the practice she would lose votes in the next election since she would be going against the wishes of the people.

An earlier study by Maendeleo ya Wanawake, a Kenyan national women's organization, indicates that 90 per cent of women were circumcised and close to 50 per cent of those interviewed were circumcised when they were aged between 10 and 15 years.

Whereas female circumcision is today discussed at international and national forums as a violation of human rights, as oppressive and inhuman, and as inimical to female reproductive health, to a considerable number of people in the communities where it is practiced, the practice is viewed as a traditional rite of passage. Yet it is by virtue of it being a rite of passage that circumcision results in most harm. Female circumcision passes off young girls into adulthood and often marriage when they are psychologically and physically unprepared.

"Circumcision of girls makes them feel grown up, and they have no qualms having sexual relations with adult men. Grown men also view them as mature women, ready for sexual relationships. Our studies have shown that in those areas where girls are circumcised there are higher rates of teenage pregnancy and school dropouts. In interviews with teachers in these areas we learnt that there is a noticeable drop in school performance soon after circumcision," says Charity Mailutha, Programme Officer at the Family Planning Association of Kenya (FPAK).

The majority of Kenyans will agree that female circumcision is no longer a necessity, that it greatly affects the status and development of girls and women, that it is a reproductive and human rights issue. But it is still a cultural practice that some communities are not ready to abandon. In 1983, when President Moi placed a ban on the practice, Samburu elders, in obvious open defiance, issued a statement that female circumcision is a cultural prerogative of the tribe, and the President had no business telling them to stop it. Indeed when the head of state visited the district soon after, he did not, at least not publicly, bring up the issue.

It is with this understanding of the sensitive nature of the topic that Maendeleo, FPAK and the Programme for Appropriate Technology in Health (PATH) have tried hard to study the prevalence of the practice, establish reasons for its persistence, and identify families who no longer practice circumcision and learn from them.

Using their research findings these organizations have to ensure that people appreciate why circumcision must be discarded. All three organizations consciously chose to use the term female circumcision, and not female genital mutilation. " The term female genital mutilation connotes malice. But when you talk to even those families who still practice female circumcision, no one intentionally wants to harm their daughters. We use the words female circumcision to avoid antagonizing people and because it is the term most people understand anyway," explains Joyce Ikiara, Assistant Progamme Officer, Maendeleo.

She points out that men have a lot to do with the decision whether a daughter is to be circumcised or not. In all the communities where the practice persists, bride price, another cultural practice that is equally detrimental to the status of women, is deeply entrenched.

"An uncircumcised girl fetches a lower bride price, and therefore a girl who refuses to be circumcised is a threat to the would-be wealth her father expects on her marriage. We know of cases where girls have been ostracized by their parents for refusing to be circumcised," says Charity Mailutha, giving the example of a secondary school student whose school fees had to be paid by Plan International. Her parents refused to have anything to do with her when she chose not to be circumcised.

Even though 71 per cent of girls interviewed during the FPAK study said other people had made decisions for them, Joyce feels strongly that girls should be targeted with information about the practice, and give them confidence building skills so that they can say no to the practice.

Her family, friends, schoolmates and young boys taunt an uncircumcised girl. But when armed with information and some formal education she is more likely to withstand the pressure. Indeed only 62 per cent of girls with secondary education were circumcised, compared to 96 per cent of those with no education.

One of the arguments for female circumcision is that it prepares girls for responsible married life. Girls who are not circumcised, it is argued, are immoral, make rude wives, and daughters-in-law. In some communities it is drummed into the girls' head right from a tender age that no man will marry an uncircumcised girl. While from a gender perspective the above arguments do not hold, both FPAK and Maendeleo and Path see the need for sustained community education.

Starting with opinion leaders, both formal and informal, health workers, teachers, men women and children are all given information during seminars, public meetings and through specially selected and trained village level " gender educators". Health learning materials had also been produced, printed and distributed in the project areas. But after giving all this information, and helping some people change, an alternative had to be designed.

Says Samson Radeny of PATH:" We discussed at length with the community what they felt would be a suitable alternative, especially in those communities where the practice did not necessarily lead to marriage."

When girls are circumcised, they go into seclusion. Each girl has the equivalent of a godmother, who holds her during the operation, takes care of her to make sure she heals properly. It is these 'god-mothers' who teach the girls what it means to be an adult, especially in marriage.

At the end of the seclusion period which could be seven days for school - going girls or two months for those who are to be married off soon after, there is a colourful community celebration, with a lot of feasting and dancing, and the girls are showered with gifts by their parents and relatives. PATH, Maendeleo and FPAK have all introduced this alternative ceremony which allows the community and the girls to go through all the steps except the actual operation. In addition some family life education skills have been imparted to the 'god-mothers' so that the girls are well armed to face the challenges of adolescence.

This alternative ceremony has been accepted in come areas but not in others.

" In communities were families make decisions - about whether a girl will be circumcised or not, or whether she will go to school - it is easy to introduce new ideas. Where these are community issues, it will take much longer to effect change. However we will continue providing information and raising awareness," says Joyce.

For Charity Mailutha, there are some small but very significant changes. "Female circumcision was not a subject people talked about. Even when you got women only in a group it took a long time to make them talk. But villagers in Meru easily discuss the merits and demerits of the practice. Equally impressive is the number of former circumcisers who have denounced their profession and are now strong community educators. Another indicator of success is the number of girls who write to us asking for assistance because they have decided, against family, not to undergo the operation.

The issue is now the subject of public debate now, even among schoolchildren. Women groups have composed songs and skits against it, and role models publicly declare they are not circumcised. Health workers discuss it with patients, and chiefs call barazas (public meetings).

Among young men, use of slang terminology is an indication of changed attitudes. An uncircumcised girl is referred to as a Manyanga or Mambo Yote (manyanga is Swahili slang for young, new, while a lose translation of mambo yote would be "she is everything". A circumcised girl on the other hand is nicknamed mitumba (mitumba means second hand, or used).

The AIDS/HIV epidemic has provided yet another reason for the fight against female circumcision. Female circumcision encourages early sexual debut, early marriage and bleeding during sexual intercourse and childbirth, all of which contribute to possible HIV transmission. The operators also often use one knife on a group of girls, enhancing transmission through blood.In churches preachers are talking about female circumcision during baptism, and this is very encouraging," says Charity. Campaigners realise it will take a long time in some communities to discourage circumcision but with sustained community-based education, change will come about.

" The more girls get educated the more they will be in a position to make their own choices".