Kenya's uphill battle: Why ending FGM remains elusive

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Former President Uhuru Kenyatta (on dais) looks on as Samburu elders sign a commitment to end FGM and child marriage among the Samburu community, at Kisima Grounds, Samburu County in 2021.

What you need to know:

  • Former President Uhuru Kenyatta pledged to end FGM in Kenya by 2022, yet the practice persists across 22 counties.
  • Challenges include cross-border FGM, medicalisation, and cultural beliefs.
  • Despite initiatives, FGM remains a pressing issue, threatening millions of girls' well-being.

On June 4, 2019, former President Uhuru Kenyatta made a commitment to end female genital mutilation (FGM) in Kenya by the year 2022. Later that November, he reaffirmed this commitment when he met with cultural and religious elders from communities with high FGM rates at State House in Nairobi. This was a significant milestone, as the leaders signed commitments to support the President's vision. During the occasion, the President directed relevant government agencies to enforce the law and take action against perpetrators.

In 2015, the United Nations (UN) had made a similar commitment to ending the cutting of girls and women by 2030. However, when Uhuru left office in August 2022, girls and women from at least 22 counties were still being subjected to FGM.

The media continued reporting cases of widespread FGM in hotspot regions like Kuria, West Pokot, and North Eastern, among others. Even though the recently released Kenya Demographic Health Survey (KDHS) 2022 report stated that the national FGM prevalence dropped from 21 per cent in 2014 to 15 per cent, the outlawed cultural practice persisted.

Gender and human rights activists, stakeholders, and the government were concerned about the emergence of new FGM trends to evade the law, including medicalization and cross-border FGM.

Cross-border FGM remained a significant challenge, with cases of girls being taken to neighbouring countries like Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia, and Somalia for the procedure before returning to Kenya. Massive cutting of girls was reported in border areas like Kuria and West Pokot, with details emerging that some girls were allegedly sneaked into neighbouring Tanzania, cut, and then brought back to the country.

Changing attitudes

Cross-border FGM emerged as a major threat to the fight against the outlawed cultural practice, with parents and elders using it to evade prosecution. Those subjecting their daughters to the cut were keen to circumvent local punitive laws, which they viewed as inapplicable in other countries.

Asenath Mwithigah  the CEO of Orchid Project.  She says that while progress in changing attitudes and behaviours towards FGM is notable, this transformation is gradual.

Photo credit: Photo | Pool

Asenath Mwithigah, the CEO of Orchid Project, tells that while progress in changing attitudes and behaviours towards practices like FGM is notable, this transformation is gradual. She explains that socialisation over generations has deeply entrenched certain norms, making swift change unlikely, as supported by the KDHS Survey of 2022.

However, there are emerging trends, especially in communities where the practice is prevalent, such as Kuria and West Pokot. For instance, there is a disturbing shift towards performing FGM on infants, alongside a decrease in the age at which it is typically done, posing challenges for detection and reporting.

Additionally, some communities have resorted to conducting FGM in secrecy, foregoing traditional ceremonies.

Interestingly, there is a shift in the perception of adulthood, especially among previously uncut women.

In certain communities like Marakwet, Ms Mwithigah says uncircumcised women are marginalised, compelling them to undergo the practice to gain acceptance in social gatherings.

She explains that calamities like the Covid-19 pandemic and droughts exacerbate the situation, leading to increased vulnerability among girls.

Multifaceted approach

“Economic pressures also play a role, with families viewing girls as commodities to be married off for financial stability, hence deciding to have them undergo the cut,” she states.

Ms Mwithigah insists that addressing FGM requires a multifaceted approach spanning various sectors, including education and healthcare. While legal frameworks exist, implementation remains a challenge, and community involvement is crucial, as mere imposition of laws without local support was ineffective.

She emphasises the instrumental role of grassroots organisations in driving change at the local level, with their intimate knowledge of communities enabling targeted interventions that resonate with cultural sensitivities while promoting lasting change.

Medicalisation of FGM, which has been on the rise, is another major challenge hindering the fight against the vice. According to the 2022 KDHS, about 14 per cent of girls aged 0-14 years and women aged 17-49 years had been cut by a doctor, nurse, or midwife.

Among circumcised women aged 15–49, 72 per cent reported being circumcised at home, 14 per cent at a relative's home, 9 per cent at a health facility, and 5 per cent in other places like forests, river banks, or caves.

Medicalisation has been rampant among the Abagusii and Somali communities and more common in urban areas.

Dr Paul Gwakio, who operates a clinic in Kajiado County, admits that cases of medicalised FGM are rampant.

Although he vows never to perform FGM due to ethical reasons, he frequently treats young girls brought in with complications from botched procedures. Despite parents claiming injuries, medical examinations often reveals severe bleeding from FGM.

Safer alternatives

"I'm aware some private clinics offer medicalised FGM, often conducted in secrecy by personnel from practicing communities. I suspect profit motivates such practices, with some believing hospital settings offer safer alternatives," Dr Gwakio says.

Entrenched cultural beliefs that refuse to die despite civilisation in some communities, also present hurdles that continue to derail efforts to eradicate the vice.

Leshan Kereto, an

Leshan Kereto, an anti-FGM activist based in Kajiado and Narok counties.

Photo credit: Photo | Pool

, adds that men in Maasai communities prefer to marry circumcised women.

“Even if women were to abandon the act, in order to get married they would still have to undergo FGM/C. Marriage is a very prized and important institution in the Maasai communities and a lot of  women would not miss out on it,’’ he says.

These cultural beliefs make the fight against FGM more difficult to win within the set deadlines.

Anti-FGM Board CEO Bernadette Loloju confirms to that cross-border FGM is rampant among neighbouring countries, posing a major challenge and being behind the surge in the cutting of girls in Kuria West and Kuria East.

She blames it on girls from Kenya being sneaked into Tanzania, where they are cut and later brought back to their homes.

Cross-border FGM

Loloju states that the government had beefed up security and implemented stringent measures at border points to curb this vice, warning parents and elders against allowing their girls to be cut, as they would be held liable under existing laws.

In 2021, Kenya, Uganda, Somalia, Tanzania, and Ethiopia launched a regional action plan to eliminate cross-border FGM. The plan, spearheaded by Gender ministries in the respective countries, provides a framework to assist governments in accelerating the implementation of existing international, regional, and national commitments on ending FGM.

It focuses on four key pillars: legislation and policy, coordination and collaboration, communication and advocacy, and evidence, research, and data gathering. The project has involved the Maasai community at the Kenya-Tanzania border, the Kuria and Taveta communities, and the Borana community in Moyale at the Kenya-Ethiopia border.

The government has been talking tough, promising to ensure the complete elimination of FGM.

Speaking recently in Kuria, President William Ruto called on residents to end the outlawed cultural practice and embrace girl-child education. He urged the community to stop FGM and collaborate with the government to help girls attend school and prosper. Ruto called on the men to join the fight against FGM.

Unicef reports that medicalisation rates are highest in five countries, with Sudan topping the list at 67 per cent, followed by Egypt (38 per cent), Guinea (15 per cent), Kenya (15 per cent), and Nigeria (13 per cent), and continuing to rise in all but Nigeria.

The UN agency indicates that about four million girls and women in Kenya have undergone FGM, with 21 per cent of girls and women aged 15 to 49 years have been subjected to the practice.

If the trend continues, the United Nations Fund for Population (UNFPA) estimates that 86 million girls born between 2010 and 2015 will be at risk of being cut by 2030.

Kenya banned FGM in 2011, paving the way for the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2011, which carried a minimum punishment of three years' imprisonment and a Sh200,000 fine. There are currently 22 counties considered FGM hotspots, including Samburu, Kisii, Nyamira, Narok, Kajiado, West-Pokot, Elgeyo-Marakwet, Baringo, Isiolo, Tana-River, Tharaka-Nithi, Taita-Taveta, Kwale, Wajir, Mandera, and Garissa, among others.