Female Genital Mutilation: An issue of cultural rights versus human rights

Katiba Cultural Rights are very excited to introduce their first guest bloggers Dr Ann-Marie Wilson, Executive Director and Esther Njenga, Africa Coordinator of 28 Too Many.

Opinions expressed in guest blogs are those of the authors and are not endorsed by the Katiba Cultural Rights research project who seek to present views from all sides of the debate.

28 Too Many is a charity working to end female genital mutilation (FGM). It researches FGM and supports local initiatives to end FGM in the 28 African countries where it is practised and across the diaspora. The charity also advocates for the global eradication of FGM, working closely with other charities/NGOs in the violence against women sector. For more information please visit www.28toomany.org

Maasai Cricket Warriors

The Maasai Cricket Warriors respect their culture by playing cricket in traditional dress and are also leading change to end FGM. Image credit: CWB/28 Too Many

In Laikipia County, along the Equator in Kenya, lives a large Maasai family consisting of two wives with 16 children between them. In this family are two brothers, who having learnt about the dangers of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) from a South African woman working with the Maasai community, talked to their parents and persuaded them not to cut their younger sister.  The brothers are also part of the Maasai Cricket Warriors (MCW). The Warriors use the sport of cricket to educate on issues affecting their community. They believe they must tackle social issues like HIV/AIDs and the harmful traditional practices of FGM and child marriage to secure the future of the Maasai people and protect their cultural heritage.

CWB, MCW and 28 too many

Members of 28 too many, CWB and MCW in Laikipia, Kenya.
Image Credit: CWB/28 Too Many

The MCW have been supported by sports development charity Cricket without Boundaries (CWB) and together they have advocated reducing HIV/AIDS in this remote community. Planning a new project and inspired by the success of the two brothers in supporting their sister, the MCW asked CWB to help them tackle FGM among the Maasai community where there is still a high prevalence of 73%. The persistence of FGM among the Maasai is against the general trend in Kenya where the national prevalence of FGM is 27% – down from 38% over the last 10 years.

Maasai Elders

Meeting the Maasai elders.
Image Credit: CWB/28 Too Many

In February this year, the MCW, CWB and 28 Too Many came together in Laikipia County to launch a new project that uses cricket as a vehicle to address the issue of FGM. The team met with the area chief and the community elders to discuss the aim of the project. At the meeting, Ann-Marie Wilson, Executive Director of 28 Too Many, aware of the sensitivity of the topic, respectfully asked permission to speak about FGM, which is considered by many to be an important cultural rite of passage. Encouragingly the chief responded by letting Ann-Marie know that she had the right to speak on the matter, which “causes harm and must stop”. This was an important moment, showing that the chief, responsible for upholding tradition, recognised that there is a difference between good cultural practices, which are beneficial and to be celebrated, and harmful practices such as FGM which should end.

CWB Sports Coaching

Bringing the community together through sports coaching to educate on key health and social issues.
Image Credit: CWB/28 Too Many

The continued practice of FGM among the Maasai is defended by men and women as a cultural right – a rite of passage turning girls into women and ensuring their readiness for marriage. The girls who refuse to get “cut” (the colloquial word for FGM in Kenya) face stigmatisation and discrimination. With this in mind any intervention to ensure lasting change to end the practice needs to be culturally relevant, respect cultural rights, and come from the community. Education and raising awareness of the harmful consequences of FGM is a sustainable way of helping to eradicate the practice. It creates a platform from which activists can address culture in a sensitive way. It also gives information and helps to transform attitudes and turns community members such as the MCW into ambassadors to spread the message from within.

But as cultural rights are respected, they must be balanced with human rights’education to ensure that communities understand the importance and implication of violating people’s human rights. FGM is a violation of the girl child’s human rights which are enshrined in international and regional instruments such as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, African Charter and Maputo Protocol. In addition, the practice goes against the Kenyan constitutional rights guaranteed to the girl child in Article 53(d). It is also illegal under the Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act 2011, the Children’s Act 2001 and the Penal Code. The message of human rights must be upheld and not neglected or side-lined in the name of cultural rights.

BAT cards

Young People in Laikipia after taking part in FGM awareness training. Image Credit CWB/28 Too Many.

Kenya has come a long way in its bid to end FGM. The Department of Public Prosecutions has stepped up its efforts to enforce the anti-FGM law, which has led to 71 reported arrests resulting in 16 prosecutions. But this has not come without resistance. In June 2014 over 2000 Maasai men and women took to the streets to protest against the anti-FGM law as an interference with their cultural rights. But the message of FGM as a harmful practice that violates the human rights of girls and women must continue to be promulgated. Culture is not static.

All images in this post have been used with the kind permission of CWB and 28 too many.

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