To most people, February 6 may have little or no significance, but to me, the International Day for Abandonment of Female Genital Mutilation is an annual reminder of a horrific operation I underwent at the age of just five. It is a reminder of the four days of prolonged labour, and the one-and-a-half days I spent unconscious, after delivering my first child, because, as any woman who has undergone FGM will tell you, giving birth once you have been mutilated is a very dangerous process. It is also a day of mourning for my dear childhood friend, who, unlike me, did not survive the blood loss that goes with this barbaric practice.
This year, however, is different. Of course I will remember my friend, but I will do so with a smile on my face, because for the first time ever, the international day comes in the context of an outright ban in Kenya on FGM. It is a ban that I have fought long and hard to achieve and which I hope, eventually, will mean that no young girl will go through the early death my friend suffered or the pain I continue to experience.
The Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act was signed into law on October 7, last year. It makes it illegal to practice FGM in this country and bars parents or guardians from soliciting these services from other countries. It provides punitive penalties, including a jail term of seven years or a fine of Sh500, 000 for anyone convicted of practising or promoting FGM.
But the delight is tempered with caution; those of us who fought for it admit that the situation is unlikely to change immediately. According to UN estimates, three million girls are mutilated each year in Africa. In Kenya, the Demographic and Health Survey, conducted in 2008/09 by the government shows that 27 per cent of women between the ages of 15 and 49 have undergone FGM. For communities like those in Garissa and North Eastern Province, where I come from, the prevalence is much higher, at around 97 per cent.
It is often mothers who are keenest to ensure their daughters undergo the operation. While these mothers are ready to send their children for the ‘cut’, they are not ready to talk about the thousands of deaths that occur as a result, or the excruciating pain, or the infections and urinary difficulties, or the scar tissue which makes childbirth dangerous and increases maternal mortality. In short, there is silence surrounding the irreversible damage done to the girls’ health.
Despite all these horrors, many mothers genuinely believe they are doing the best for their daughters by sending them to be mutilated. They fear that if their daughters are not cut, they will struggle to live in the community and suffer stigma. Sadly, in a way they are right. There is still a great deal of stigma against those who have not undergone FGM in communities where it is prevalent. As we work to implement this law, we must therefore also undertake education activities, such as those being undertaken by Unicef, UNFPA, Equality Now, Womankind Kenya and my own organisation, the Kenya Women Parliamentary Association, to eradicate such stigma.
One source of stigma is the mistaken belief, common among Muslims, that the tradition is somehow Islamic. There is no basis for FGM in the Koran and many renowned Islamic international and local scholars and leaders acknowledge this. I applaud them for their efforts and appeal for more like-minded leaders to join their cries for an end to FGM. Equally, Christian community leaders like the Njuri-ncheke of Meru are also coming out strongly to denounce FGM.
Inaccurate interpretation of religious texts and stigma are not the only barrier to ending FGM. The women who do the circumcision often seek to perpetuate the process because it provides them with income and respect in the community. In some communities, such as the Masaai and the Meru, people also believe that girls should undergo a learning process to become women, a process which traditionally occurs during the days spent in recuperation from FGM. This is not part of the Somali or Muslim tradition, because the girls from those areas are circumcised when they are very young, but is an important part of other cultures.
We have solutions to these ‘journey to womanhood’ challenges. Alternative rites of passage involving former circumcisers have been launched by anti-FGM charities in parts of Kenya. Such rites give the former circumcisers a role by involving them in informal classes that teach young girls about their cultures and traditions without putting them through the cut. Innovation, not cruel tradition, is the future for girls in Kenya.
The legislation banning FGM is a giant step in the fight against the practice. I congratulate all those who joined our fight to get this far. The first prosecutions will surely make those who cling to the practice think again. So, as we celebrate the International Day of Abandonment of FGM in Kenya, at last we truly have a reason to celebrate. This cruel practice is on its way out. It is not Christian, it is not Islamic and most of all, it is not moral – it is a cruel abuse of human rights. There is no place for FGM in the new Kenya.
Sophia Abdi Noor is a nominated MP and Vice Chair of the Kenya Women Parliamentary Association (KEWOPA) and of the Parliamentary Labour and Social Welfare Committee.