Post-International Women’s Month: a History of Illegal Female Circumcision in Kenya

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Center of Disease Control Art Exhibition, “Violence, Women and Art” featuring ‘stitches on a rose’ as a metaphorical representation of suffering victims, Jul. 25, 2017 (Amnesty International)

30 years ago, 179 governments assembled in Cairo Egypt for the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), where Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) was recognized as a violation of human rights. Following the commencement, various countries have subsequently banned the operation, including Kenya, which has made a firm commitment to eradicate the practice by 2022.

FGM, rooted in gender inequality, involves the removal of the vulva. Initiated by none other than mothers themselves, the cut attempts to control the sexuality, modesty, and purity of girls in the name of “social inclusion.” While 230 million girls have undergone FGM globally by 2024, the operation sees zero health benefits, and instead, evokes serious menstrual disruption, chronic pain, and in many cases, fatal infections.

Following its ban, Kenya saw notable declines in the number of cases over the past decade. However, rights groups stress concerns over efforts cascading into the void; the ignorance of a passive Kenyan police force has crippled rightful arrests and convictions of perpetrators. Over 500,000 young girls are still estimated to be at risk of FGM by 2030, with the majority of them undergoing the cut before the age of 15. Evidently, too many people are still left behind.

The biggest challenge facing girls, however, is no longer “traditional FGM,” which involves the use of “unsterilized instruments and severe cuts,” notes Jack Onyando, a Unicef child protection specialist. FGM faces medicalization, which is carried out using “surgical tools and anesthetics.”

Unlicensed health clinics are the primary practitioners of medicalized FGM. Having grown significantly over the past years due to inadequate services provided by hospitals, these clinics are run by doctors who are unqualified to carry out surgical incisions but are entrusted to perform FGM. “They are called daktari (doctor),” says Ruth Mogoka, a retired nurse who is familiar with the lineage of medicalized FGM. Regrettably, such circumvention of accountability is not subjected to Kenya; “daktari[s]” extend beyond the country’s border and girls are transported to such places to receive the cut without legal restriction. Further, such practices have evolved unpredictably under the veil of COVID-19. “People want the service and they want it as secretly as possible,” a medical practitioner told the Guardian in the aftermath of the pandemic. Medicalization offers a mask of legitimacy to a practice of harm, making it a perpetuation of abuse and “one of the greatest threats to eliminating FGM.” Such practices have grown to 15% in Kenya, one of the highest in Africa.

Notably, poor education is holding girls back. Research published by the National Library of Medicine calls defective education a reproducer of “ignorant pastoralists” as a 13% higher FGM rate is seen for girls whose mothers did not have any formal education. Doris Onsomu, a 67-year-old who has spent years administering the cut, corroborates this view; “Traditions defy education. It takes a long time to unlearn certain practices.”

Unfortunately, Onsomu believes medicalized FGM is a safer alternative as she is “helping the[Kenyan] community” by practicing it. Other practitioners have a more straightforward incentive. “It’s pespa pap (slang for ‘instant money’),” notes a cutter, “this is my livelihood,” she adds. Her voice is reflective of many.

Regardless, efforts to eradicate FGM prevail. The 13th anniversary of International Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM, focusing on commemorating “Survivor-Led Movements” to end FGM, reminds us of three powerful figures whose works have made critical changes in Kenyan communities and beyond. Tony, who has joined the #MenEndFGM campaign on X has started an online organization that directly supports around 50,000 Kenyan girls against FGM. Leah, through the World Vision Kenya Big Dream III project, has advocated FGM education programs for 270,000 youth in Kenya. Jana, who is now a UN Women Ambassador for Africa and featured in her documentary “Jaha’s Promise,” is globally recognized for her work on ending FGM.

Still, “progress to prevent FGM needs to be 27 times faster,” says the UN in March this year. The practice is still close to universal in countries like Somalia, Guinea, and Djibouti, with levels of 90% or higher.

FGM is a crisis with grave dimensions; its complexity, cemented in tradition extends to the socioeconomic inadequacy of Africa. Hence, addressing the crisis requires an integrated and holistic approach involving professional health ambassadors to uncover the multifaceted wounds it inflicts.

Written by Julia Jiang

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