Shifting tide as men defy tradition, push for an end to FGM

Peter Kemei, founding member and head of operations at Men End FGM, during an interview in Nairobi. He says men are gradually embracing the war on the harmful practice at all levels.

Photo credit: File I Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • FGM is a cultural practice in many communities, but some religious sects also support it
  • The practice is seen as a women’s issue yet it is a societal problem that affects all.

As Kenya marks 10 years of devolution, one issue remains outstanding: harmful cultural practices that women and girls are exposed to.

Female genital mutilation (FGM), which the government declared illegal in 2011, continues to thrive in some regions in the country.

The government, women advocates and non-governmental organisations have been at the forefront to end the retrogressive practice, with little progress.

In the recent past, however, we have seen a rise in the number of men from FGM hotspot counties, including the elderly, join in the campaign to end FGM, marking a shift from their cultural stance.

Men’s war against FGM features prominently in Tharaka Nithi County, a region predominantly inhabited by the Ameru, a patriarchal community.

The Kenya Demographic and Health Survey 2022 report shows that FGM prevalence among women aged 15–49 in Tharaka Nithi is 27 per cent, way above the national prevalence of 15 per cent. The county is second in the Mt Kenya region after Nyandarua (82 per cent), according to the survey.

In this society, men have the final say in decision-making at both family and community levels. The involvement of men in the fight against FGM, has therefore been a game-changer.

Mugambi Munene, the executive director of Fit for Future Kenya, a feminist advocacy organisation operating in the county, says the government and NGOs have been missing the target by leaving out men.

“We have mostly been involving women in the fight against FGM, but forgetting that in our community, men have the final say on every decision. No girl will be circumcised if the father is not willing,” Mr Munene tells the Voice during an interview in Chuka town.

He says though women are seen as the perpetrators and are the ones who mostly bear the consequences of the law, they mostly get instructions from their husbands, who culturally have a small role in FGM ceremonies.

Njuri Ncheke elders

Mr Munene says the campaigns among the Ameru community received a major boost when the Njuri Ncheke Council of Elders publicly condemned FGM. He says traditionally, a girl’s brothers are responsible for looking for circumcisers, hence the war cannot be won if they are not fully involved.

Some men also force their wives to undergo the cut, while some families insist that they cannot pay dowry for uncircumcised daughters-in-law. Others argue that they have to comply with the demand of their ancestors, lest they be cursed. In some villages, uncircumcised women cannot be allowed to join welfare groups. 

In other places, they cannot fetch water from the same well as the circumcised ones, prompting them to undergo the cut to fit in. 

In the Mitheru area of Maara, a mother of two children had to quit marriage after her in-laws insisted that she be circumcised.

Mr Munene says they are enlightening men and boys on the social and health dangers of FGM so that they can be agents of change. 

“Our organisation has sponsored several men's football clubs and almost every day we have a tournament. We take time to discuss FGM and the young men are now anti-FGM crusaders.”

Teenage pregnancies

Mr Munene argues that FGM is the major contributor to teenage pregnancies and early marriages because circumcised girls are presumed mature for marriage.

While few cases may come into the limelight, many are secretly undertaken despite heightened advocacy and increased surveillance by the authorities.

Mr Munene further urges the Tharaka Nithi government to implement an anti-FGM policy that the county assembly passed in 2021. It allows the county to allocate funds to the fight against the cut and other forms of gender-based violence.

In West Pokot, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the media now organise anti-FGM sensitisation meetings. The county is one of those with a high prevalence. Even though the Kenya Demographic and Health Survey (KDHS) 2022 report says FGM has reduced countrywide from 38 percent in 1998, to 15 per cent in 2022, it is evident that some communities still record many cases of FGM and early marriages.

Peter Kemei, the coordinator of an NGO, Men End FGM, has called on the government and parents to deal with perpetrators. said. He spoke in Kapenguria on Monday at the launch of a three-day campaign that aims to put youths on the frontline sensitising the community to the vice.

“The campaign is aimed at actively engaging men and boys in the fight against female genital mutilation. Gender equality cannot be achieved without them. Change is slowly taking place and men are increasingly working alongside women to support gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls,” he says.

According to him, partnering with men and boys ensures families, communities, institutions, and policy-makers support and invest in promoting the elimination of FGM.

“The role of men, youth and boys is crucial in denouncing this inhuman, harmful and illegal practice,” he said.

The NGO has been creating awareness among the youth, who are now required to be on the frontline of sensitising communities across West Pokot. 

“Partnering with men and boys ensures families, communities, institutions, and policymakers support the elimination of female genital mutilation. The role of men and boys is crucial in denouncing this inhuman, harmful and illegal practice.”

He said the campaign calls for boys and men to exert their influence on their families and communities, to support the effort to eliminate this harmful practice.

Men feel they have been side-lined from FGM campaigns. Decisions relating to FGM can be made by multiple actors, with men having some power to influence. Greater awareness of the complications of FGM, for example, has been shown to positively influence how willing men are to play a role in its prevention,” said Mr Kemei.

“In unequal patriarchal societies, the individual voices of men matter more than the collective voice of women.”

He said men are gradually engaging in the fight at all levels, from individually protecting their daughters, to being part of grassroots organisations dedicating their effort to the campaigns. 

Journalist Mike Kaungo stressed the need for synergy to end harmful social and gender norms.

“Most men don't know what happens, they think FGM is like male circumcision. Let it become a male issue, too – male doctors talking to men. Engaging fathers is the best strategy. Tell them they could never be grandfathers if they let their daughters be cut,” he said.

“Men consider reproductive health a woman's issue. We brought them to a maternity hospital; they've never been there before. We invite young men to become activists. Many would like it to end but are unable to voice their support because of social pressure and obligations. Change needs to come from within communities, supported by the creation of opportunities for men and women to debate the practice. 

“Advocacy by men, as well as research, prevention programmes and health services targeted at men could be explored to assess their success within the abandonment process. These programmes may work together with those for women to empower men and women to protect their daughters and communities from FGM’s devastating effects,” he said.

Faith Chepkasi, a beneficiary of the campaigns, said that although FGM is often meted out to girls during infancy by female members of their communities, it is deeply rooted in patriarchal and gender discriminatory norms. She cited social obligations and lack of dialogues between men and women as barriers to its elimination.

“Advocacy by men and collaboration between men and women on health and community programmes may be important steps forward.”

She called for enhanced involvement of men in decision-making on anti-FGM campaigns. 

“There is some evidence that men may play a significant role in its continuation as fathers, husbands, communities and religious leaders.”

Former President Uhuru Kenyatta had targeted to end FGM in Kenya by the end of last year, but that was not achieved. Counties like Wajir, Mandera, Marsabit, Garissa and Samburu have over 70 per cent prevalence, according to the KDHS 2022 report. This shows the country has a long way to go in ending the vice.