Why FGM is still a thorn in the country’s flesh today
For Lerai Leshalima from the Alale division, along the Kenya-Uganda border, her dream of transitioning into an adult began when she first heard her elder sisters talk of how prepared they were for marriage.
At that time, her sisters — 16 and 17 years old respectively — had just undergone Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and were eager to join their new families.
Although this didn’t sound peculiar to her, she was knowledgeable of the illegality of the practice.
But even with enough information from social groups, she couldn’t imagine not going through the cut.
To her, this was the latest fashion in her community and the beauty of it conjured images of a respectable, modest woman.
“I was just 12 then, I didn’t know how bad the practice was. All I knew is that it was illegal.
My major concern was transitioning into adulthood as other girls in my community did,” she says.
Despite FGM restrictions, Lerai and her friends planned a journey to her relatives in the neighbouring country.
“We didn’t have money for the trip, so we engaged a few relatives who would get us to a ‘surgeon.’
Surprisingly, they were willing to help,” she recalls. The trip was cut short after local authorities at the border suspected something was off.
Lerai’s parents hold different opinions on FGM. Her mother was disappointed that her daughter’s mission to get the cut was aborted while the father, who comes from a community that didn’t practice FGM, is indifferent.
“My mother sincerely believed this tradition is necessary; that it makes you calmer as a woman,” she explains.
Kenya has a 21 per cent prevalence rate of FGM, according to Kenya Demographic and Health Survey 2014.
A 2020 report by United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) titled, A Profile of Female Genital Mutilation in Kenya, shows the country’s progress towards the end of FGM is relatively stronger than other countries in East or Southern Africa.
Ambrose Pyatich, a programme coordinator at Umoja Development Organisation based in West Pokot, says statistics reveal the rate in the area is above 84 per cent.
He attributes this to entrenched traditional beliefs and myths tied to the practice.
“When the pandemic hit, the community believed they were being punished for not circumcising girls.
This contributed to the high number of girls going through the cut during that period,” he explains.
To him, the setback could be as a result of gaps in policies in the community as a result of no linkage between the government and the community. That the Kenya-Uganda border is porous is also another big challenge.
“People from West Pokot are nomads; they migrate to Uganda from time to time in search of food.
During this time, they take this opportunity to ensure girls undergo the practice either at night, by the riverbank, or across the border,” he says.
He adds that the porous border policies make it difficult for FGM campaigners to monitor or follow up on what is happening on the other side.
“These families have relatives on both sides; they would come up with an excuse of going to visit a relative on the other side and take advantage of this opportunity to subject the girl to cross-border FGM,” he explains.
He highlights that at places considered no man’s land, there are no police posts or people to intervene, which makes it harder for campaigners.
In the same area, Domtila Chesang, a grassroots advocate for women’s rights and founder of I Am Responsible Foundation, confirms that the area is vast, and accessibility becomes a major problem, especially if officials have to deal with perpetrators of FGM.
“There are limited resources in the area. This means by the time officials begin their journey to here the practice is being done, they could be late.
Most police posts, poli-care are quite a distance away and they need fuel, and budget to move around,” she explains.
Domtila says communities refuse to comply with ban on FGM as a protest for government failure to meet the social contract.
“The community feels neglected, especially when it comes to quality healthcare, infrastructure, and quality education. Therefore, educating them about ending FGM is impossible because this is their way of retaliating,” she says.
Another hitch in the implementation of current laws is impunity of perpetrators who are protected by families and community.
“During the pandemic, there was mass cutting. Although evidence was all over, the system was unable to administer punishment because the community would always threaten prosecutors and this would then bring frustration, causing a dent in executing any form of punishment by the law,” Domtila highlights.
She adds that prosecution is difficult because FGM is done within family circles, where survivors fear exposing their abusers. She calls for stronger support systems to protect girls who choose to speak out.
“The girls need protection, especially when they decide to speak up, they need people to help them through this process.
However, in most cases, some girls end up taken back to this same community that forcefully subjected them to FGM,” she explains.
Myths and cultural beliefs also play central role in fuelling FGM in Tana River county.
Sadia Hussein, an anti-FGM activist, says the community has its myths and beliefs that make it hard for campaigners to tackle FGM.
There are practical challenges to enforcing the law, and criminalising the practice pushes it to be done in secrecy, or drives down the levels of reporting, all of which make it hard for FGM to be eradicated.
“During the pandemic, there has been a reduced police and community oversight. This has impacted efforts to tackle FGM due to diversion of resources and closure of some safe houses,” she says.
She recommends that the Anti-FGM Board be decentralised to ensure all the gaps in the law are filled because peple would be working at the grassroots level.
SWhile FGM is illegal in Kenya, with a prison term of up to three years’ imprisonment or a fine of up to Sh200,000, the struggle to end the vice has been, especially pronounced across the country’s border with Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia, and Somalia.
Unfortunately, girls in rural Kenya are at greater risk of cross-border FGM.
Caroline Lagat, Programme Associate End Harmful Practices Programme at Equality Now says Kenya has a robust policy and legal framework that outlaws the practice.
“Kenya has a mixed legal system, comprising English common law, Islamic law, and customary law.
The country has a quasi-federal structure with two distinct, but interdependent tiers of government at national and county levels,” she explains.
She adds that national law supersedes any laws made at the county level, and applies when there is no county legislation.
Caroline, a lawyer, adds that Kenya has ratified international and regional legal instruments like the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights on the Rights of Women, also known as the MAPUTO Protocol, prohibiting FGM.
It has also enacted the Prohibition of FGM Act of 2011, and other laws that contain provisions that address the practice, including the Children’s Act, 2001 and Protection against Domestic Violence Act.
“The Prohibition of FGM Act established the Anti-FGM Board formed in 2014, whose mandate is to offer policy leadership and programmatic coordination.
The Board has developed policies, strategies, plans of actions, and tools that are critical in accelerating the abandonment of FGM,” she says.
Despite the foregoing efforts, data shows that FGM is still high in some communities and counties in Kenya.
This further reveals there is a shift in the time, age, manner, and place where the practice takes place.
Bernadette Loloju, CEO, Anti-FGM Board, says although the country is working hard to accelerate the elimination of the vice, they would be looking at zero per cent new cases, which means making sure there is no practice.
“It is good to highlight that even in counties where the practice has become less common, progress would mean being 10 times faster in meeting global target of elimination by 2030, and national policy of eradication by 2022,” she says.
This can only be made possible if it’s dealt with from the community level, involving putting in place and adhering to community dialogue guidelines and discussions held via local radio stations and campaigns.
But even as the country looks at possible gains, Loloju says the biggest challenge is the absence of data to show how issues are interlinked.
“The last research on FGM was done in 2014 by KDHS and ever since no data has been updated, this makes it hard to deal with any possible cases of FGM at county level,” she says.
But with the government policy to have children in school, it is easy for the multi-agency team mandated to follow up on the girls to do their work.
“We have realised that school is the best place for children, the only problem we might have is during the March-May closing period, but we are hoping that even then we would be able to handle anything thrown at us to ensure that bigger strides are made,” she explains.
On cross border FGM, Loloju highlights that there is an action plan declaration within the borders to be launched this month.
But even with these policies and strategies, the biggest elephant in the room is resources. She says both human and financial resources tend to put the country back on the drawing board.
“When it comes to human resources, we need frontline workers at community level sensitising about FGM as well as enough financial resources for the campaign to be effective through radio, church, and schools,” she says.