Devolution@10: Decade of unyielding war on FGM and early marriages

Former President Uhuru Kenyatta with Samburu elders during an anti-FGM declaration event in the Kisima area of Samburu County in 2020.

Photo credit: Geoffrey Ondieki I Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • The counties have been playing a part in the war on harmful traditions that undermine the quest for gender equality and efforts to empower women and girls.
  • With devolution came the promise of grassroots empowerment programmes meant to help end retrogressive cultural practices.

“One woman held my back and another one my legs. I could hear the sound of the scissors as it cut through my clitoris,” Bernadette Loloju, the chief executive officer (CEO) of the Anti-FGM Board says, recounting her experience in a June interview with Nation.Africa.

She is an FGM survivor who leads the fight against the vice. She was cut not to be married off, but because of community pressure.

“l thought the practice was normal until I joined high school and realised it was a human rights violation, leading to my anti-FGM advocacy.”

As Kenya marks a decade of devolution, a governance structure that raised hopes for ending harmful cultural practices, including FGM and child marriages, the vices remain rampant and continue to threaten the attainment of gender equality.          


The country passed legislation barring FGM in 2011, criminalising it. The law provides that if it is carried out and causes death, the perpetrator is liable to life imprisonment. The Act also criminalises a person who takes another person inside or outside Kenya to perform FGM on her.

In 2013, FGM prevalence was 21 per cent. Ten years later, 15 per cent of girls and women aged 15–49 have been cut, and 23 per cent of women under 25 were married before age 18.

Last month, Nena Thundu, the coordinator at the African Union Ending Harmful Practices Unit, noted that limited data on child marriage hinders mobilisation and funding for protection initiatives.

Child marriage and FGM are linked, in some communities, with poverty. According to the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef), over 40 million girls and women in Africa have experienced both practices.

In Kenya, younger women are less likely to experience both, except in Somali (with an FGM prevalence of 94 per cent, Samburu 86 per cent and 78 per cent among the Maasai), with more than one in three being cut and married off. 

A Council of Governors (CoG) 2022 report places the prevalence of child marriage in Mandera at 40 per cent and that of FGM at 100 per cent. Sixty-two per cent of women aged 20–49 got married and began childbearing when they were still children. In neighbouring Marsabit, the report indicates that 91 per cent of the population recorded FGM cases, while 60 per cent of girls dropped out because of early marriages.

From 2019 to 2022, Ms Loloju worked with former President Uhuru Kenyatta. Mr Kenyatta went ahead and won the 2022 African Gender Award for championing gender equality. He oversaw the establishment of the Anti-FGM Board in December 2013, which was tasked to design and coordinate public awareness programmes, and advise the government on FGM matters.

Deadline not achieved

It was also at the beginning of Ms Loloju’s tenure that Mr Kenyatta made a bold commitment to ending FGM by last year. In 2021, he launched the revised FGM policy covering national and county governments, which aimed to accelerate FGM eradication through multi-sectoral interventions, community participation, research, and data collection.

Under the community participation strategy, the board has engaged elders in hotspot counties, targeting custodians. The counties include Tharaka Nithi, Embu, Narok, Bomet, Baringo, Kajiado, Taita Taveta, Kisii, Nyamira, Migori, Elgeyo Marakwet and West Pokot. The others are Laikipia, Samburu, Bungoma, Marsabit, Isiolo, Mandera, Wajir, Garissa, Tana River and Meru.

In 2021, in the presence of Mr Kenyatta, 40 Samburu elders signed the Kisima Declaration, their commitment to ending FGM and child marriages. Loita Maasai in 2019, Borana in 2020 and Pokot elders in 2021 also made their commitments. However, in Migori, where the tradition is rampant among the Abakuria, County Gender Director Kenneth Oomo criticised the elders for lacking goodwill, despite their 2021 commitment.

“They lie to us during the day, but at night, they champion the cutting of the girls,” he said.

To counter this challenge, Unicef and the Anti-FGM Board unveiled Pasha app in Migori and Samburu in 2022 to help report cases anonymously via text messages or voicemail.

Mr Obino Nyambane, the director of culture in Kisii County, linked the elders’ resistance to exclusion during policy- and lawmaking.

“Devolution has enabled more people at the local level to participate in anti-FGM activities and campaigns because services have been brought closer. However, their mindsets have yet to change because from the beginning, these communities were not involved in the development of anti-FGM laws, hence their resistance.” 


In Kajiado, where 78 per cent of all girls underwent the cut in 2014, Governor Joseph ole Lenku assented to the Anti-FGM Policy in 2019. It seeks to eradicate FGM, raise community awareness, and empower circumcisers to adopt alternative livelihoods. County Gender Deputy Director Mary Taiko said the figures had decreased to 63 per cent in 2022.

Similarly, Lamu has sponsored traditional circumcisers to engage in economic activities like milk vending, fish mongering, and grocery sales to help them quit and earn income. In 2022, Narok also launched a similar policy by devolving anti-FGM committees, chaired by county and sub-county commissioners, to enable community engagement. The county employed alternative livelihoods such as Ushanga initiative to counter FGM and child marriages.

Isiolo had launched its gender policy in September 2021, to help mainstream gender in its processes by providing a clear framework for implementation with concrete measures to prevent FGM. With the support of Action Aid, and other partners, the ccounty has held community forums to educate men on the fallout from FGM.

Mr Joseph Lesingirat, a resident of Isiolo, said: “After learning about the suffering that the cut brings to women, I committed to protecting them and remaining vigilant in my community to report FGM.”

An investigative article by Nation.Africa in June found that with only Sh50,000 or a bull, a rogue chief in West Pokot will participate in FGM or oversee young girls being forced into early marriages by offering protection to perpetrators.  This explains why the vice continues in this county on local administrators’ watch.

In 2020, Marsabit conducted sensitisation to child protection and community dialogues on ending FGM in North Horr. West Pokot, in partnership with NGOs, women’s groups and donor organisations, has conducted campaigns against FGM and early marriages, and provided boarding facilities for women learners in vocational training centres who have escaped FGM.

With the support of donors, Garissa established a safe house and a resource centre, accommodating 80 girls below the age of 18, who are rescued or have run away from home because of FGM and child marriage.

Aisha Ali*, a Daystar University student, says devolution has empowered leaders at her home county of Mandera, helping them make their own decisions on how best to fight FGM.

“In Takaba, I sometimes see leaders conducting summonses and condemning FGM. I also know of chiefs, who go door to door to ensure that although girls are cut, they are not married off or hidden at home but instead go to school.

“However, in the Somali community, if you came out as an individual to speak up against FGM, you are shamed and silenced. If the county raised awareness of this form of stigmatisation, we would achieve faster progress, because there would be many anti-FGM ambassadors,” she says.

Ms Irine Kosgei, the chief of Barpello location in Baringo, observes that although services were devolved, limited attention has been given to FGM.

“There are ward administrators deployed in each ward by the county government, but for them to reach the far-flung villages where the archaic practice is rife, there is a challenge because they have no resources allocated, let alone transport.”

Mr Kenyatta’s term ended without him achieving his FGM goal, and concerns, including medicalisation, increased cross-border FGM and the cutting of girls under seven years persist in the 22 high-prevalence counties.

Plan International posits that challenging discriminatory reasons – which are the perceived need to control sexuality, ensure proper behaviour, and maintain virginity for marriage – is the first step towards ending FGM.

Safe houses

Men End FGM, an organisation rallying boys and men to the cause, in 2022 called on the Kisii administration to establish functional safe houses for at-risk girls. They noted that some mothers were subjecting their daughters to medicalised FGM under the guise of ear piercings in hospitals, a practice that has been rising since 2020. 

In 2022, Loitoktok in Kajiado, witnessed a rise in another form of medicalised FGM. Women were colluding with medics to undergo the cut during childbirth to gain societal acceptance. Others also subjected their infants to the practice. 

Migori anti-FGM crusaders suggest incorporating boda boda operators in cross-border interventions because they can use impassable roads owing to their knowledge of the terrain.

To end FGM and child marriages, Unicef representative Shaheen Nilofer and UNFPA representative Anders Thomsen, in a recent opinion piece, called for enhanced collaboration between national and county governments, the UN, and partners to increase male cultural, religious, and political leaders' engagement in the national action plan. They add that mentorship and life skills building for boys can empower them to prevent and report FGM cases.

Ms Teresa Cheptoo, a child protection officer at World Vision, in an earlier interview with Nation.Africa, urged political leaders in West Pokot to help fight FGM. “Fear of voter backlash has been cited as a major obstacle to ending FGM in many pastoral areas. Some politicians don’t want to talk about it for fear of losing votes,” she said.

*Name changed to protect identity, given the hardline that perpetrators harbour about the practice.

Additional reporting by Florah Koech; [email protected]