Kenyan schools have already broken up for the Christmas holidays, which last for six weeks. In Nairobi, shopping malls and cafes are thronged with middle class parents and excited, over-dressed children.
But for many less privileged country girls of a certain age – around seven to 13, though the range can be four to 16 – these holidays are a time of unexpected horror. It is the season for FGM, or ‘the cut’ as female genital mutilation is euphemistically known here. Even though the practice was banned in 2011, and the 2010 constitution also outlaws harmful cultural practices, FGM still persists in ethnic communities such as the Pokot, Maasai, Gikuyu, Kisii and Somali. In some communities the incidence is as high as 97 per cent of all girls.
Urban girls are being forced to undergo FGM, too, but it’s easier to hide from the law in remote rural communities. Research shows that urban prevalence in Kenya is 17 per cent, while rural prevalence is on average 31 per cent of all women.
Briefly, FGM involves the partial or total excision of the clitoris, labia minora and inner layers of the labia majora, and in some cases infibulation, or the stitching together of the vulva to leave a very small opening. (This is a simplification; the practice differs between communities and countries.) It causes severe problems with urination, menstruation, sexual intercourse and childbirth – never mind the mental and emotional torment.
‘The fact that more FGM exercises are done during the December holidays pisses me off,’ wrote one reader, Alex Mwangale, in the Star newspaper. ‘Parents and communities arranging to have their girls cut should be arrested and tried in court for causing bodily harm to the young girls’. It’s made Letter of the Week.
Two days earlier, after national newspapers ran a story and photos showing a tearful Pokot girl undergoing FGM at a secret location in Baringo County, the Ministry of Devolution and Planning ran full page advertisements strongly condemning FGM and vowing a crackdown on female practitioners and parents. Feisty Cabinet Secretary Anne Waiguru wrote: ‘That such a vice can continue unabated is unacceptable in this day and age. Further, the continuity of such a practice deprives the girl child her constitutional rights as enshrined in Article 53 (d) … I wish to remind all Kenyans that FGM and its related practices are criminal offences under the Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act 2011, the Children’s Act 2001 and the Penal Code’.
She urged all Kenyans to be particularly vigilant during the school holidays, and pledged to prosecute offenders. People can call a special hotline to report perpetrators. It would be interesting to know how many actually do.
So, why does the practice persist in 2014? Proponents of FGM – who include Kenyan women as well as men – defend it as a cultural tradition and cultural right. Typically, they believe that a girl is not prepared for marriage and adulthood without having undergone this rite of passage, which is ‘traditionally’ accompanied by instruction from older women in how to be a good wife and mother. Some say it curbs women’s ‘voracious’ sexual appetite; guarantees virginal brides; makes the female body more beautiful; and they use quasi-religious arguments for its continuation. A patriarchal practice which causes major trauma, ill health and in some cases death, is made to sound like some harmless, folksy ceremonial. This isn’t the place to describe the historical background, but it’s partly rooted in African opposition to British colonial rule in the 1930s.
Standard on Sunday columnist Clay Muganda scathingly dismissed the culture argument on 23 November: ‘Ye all pseudo-intellectuals, spare me the nonsensical excuse that FGM is culture and it will take time before it Is eradicated. Culture is a construct which is being used as an excuse …’
But there is considerable stigma attached, in these communities, to girls who haven’t been ‘cut’. It takes huge courage to oppose it – on the part of the girls, their parents, and activists from practising communities. These women insiders are best placed to change hearts, minds and behaviour.
Under the banner ‘Sharing tears to reclaim ourselves’, Maasai human rights activist Jenipher Sikinan Ene Juma is one of many grassroots activists working to end FGM through education and awareness raising. She works in Narok and Kajiado Counties, exclusively among Maasai communities, for the organisation Loita Community Health and Education Centre Entasekera. ‘Training women is my passion’, she says. Jenipher has seen education transform hundreds of lives, and change both men and women’s attitudes and behaviour.
In the coming weeks and months I plan to meet some of the women who’ve attended workshops run by Jenipher and other activists, and talk to girls and families who are choosing so-called Alternative Rites of Passage over FGM. These offer girls an alternative badge of honour, if you like, and include instruction on gender, reproductive health and human rights issues. In parallel with the ‘cutting’ season, December is also the season for Alternative Rites. Later, I will also be talking to proponents of FGM, in order to try and understand how it’s being framed in cultural terms.
25 November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, marks the start of 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence in Kenya.
While you’re enjoying a painless festive season, spare a thought for the girls who are not.