Kenya has seen a setback in its progress to eradicate female genital mutilation (FGM) after an open parade in defiance of the government clampdown on the practice took place this week.
Almost 2,800 girls from the Kuria community in south-western Kenya have undergone FGM, which involves the removal of the outer layers of female genitalia and sometimes the clitoris, in the past three weeks, say local activists.
Every day since late September, girls who have undergone the practice have been paraded in the region’s main urban centres, where they have been showered with gifts, including cash. The gifts, according to the activists, are designed to encourage other young girls to undergo FGM.
Kenya is viewed as a regional champion in the fight against FGM and the parades will be seen as a setback to government efforts to eradicate the practice by 2022.
A 2020 report by Unicef states that Kenya’s progress towards the eradication of FGM is stronger than that of other nations in eastern or southern Africa. The report states that more than 4 million girls and women in the country have undergone FGM. But last year Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, put the figure at 9.3 million.
Kenya outlawed FGM in 2011. Offences include aiding or abetting FGM, the possession of tools to carry out the practice, and failure to report a person carrying out FGM.
The law stipulates a prison sentence of not less than three years or a fine of 200,000 shillings (£1,408) – or both – for the crimes. A person who causes the death of a girl through FGM can be sentenced to life imprisonment.
But the open displays of defiance to the government’s ban on the practice by the Kuria community are frustrating officials.
“I have been here before and it’s sad that despite the numerous visits and awareness creation the practice is rife in the Kuria region. It’s sad that you have defied the presidential directive,” Prof Collette Suda, principal secretary at the ministry for gender, reportedly said during a crisis meeting held in the region.
At the meeting, 10 local chiefs and their assistants were interdicted for abetting FGM in their areas. The Kuria community has one of the highest rates of prevalence of FGM in Kenya; affecting 84% of women.
In some local media clips, men are seen waving machetes in the air to either urge others to join in the initiation festivals, known as esaro, or to protect perpetrators from anyone who dares oppose the initiation ceremonies.
Natalie Robi Tingo, founder of the grassroots anti-FGM organisation Msichana Empowerment Kuria, says sometimes the organisers of a “cut” will dress young girls as boys undergoing circumcision to disguise the large number undergoing FGM.
“Esaro is a huge cultural event among the Kuria. It usually starts with the traditional circumcision of boys. Then the girls follow and by the third week, the initiation processions are all over town. All we can do is watch and go our way. It is too dangerous to try and intervene,” she says.
Schools in Kenya reopened last week after seven months of closure due to the coronavirus, but many young girls are missing classes in order to undergo FGM.
“We have seen girls going back to class while clad in a lesso (light wraparound dress), a sign that they have just undergone FGM. Some girls would go to class bleeding. When other girls see this, they think FGM is OK. But why do school heads allow such girls back in class in that condition? That seems to legitimise FGM,” says Tingo.
Activists say it will be impossible to eradicate FGM if the government does not address a root cause of its prevalence in the rural Kuria community: poverty.
Christine Ghati, 27, knows too well the allure of gifts for a girl whose family can hardly make ends meet. “When I was 13, I looked forward to the cut to get the gifts that other girls were getting,” she says. “We were poor and my mother was struggling to provide for us. I thought the cash gifts would alleviate our family’s suffering. Today, initiated girls are also gifted with mattresses. It makes them feel honoured since many are used to sleeping on bare floors.”
Ghati only changed her mind when her mother persuaded her that her late father would not have approved. “He was against FGM,” her mother told her. Ghati was eight when her father died.
Today, Ghati campaigns against FGM through her community-based group, Safe Engage Foundation, educating young girls on the dangers of the practice. Often risking her life, she has rescued about 100 girls, who are now in safe houses in the region.
“I have received threatening text messages from parents and other relatives whose girls I rescued. Some have vowed to abduct me and perhaps force me to undergo the cut. Nowadays I even fear going to the market. You see these men carrying machetes and threatening even the police daily,” she says.
According to Unicef, 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone FGM, across 31 countries. In 2012, the UN resolved to eradicate FGM by 2030. But the economic impact of the pandemic and resultant lockdowns are expected to lead to a resurgence of the practice.