BACKWARD TRADITIONS

Cults taking cover behind culture to perpetrate FGM in Murang’a

The practice has become so rampant that it is taking root even in urban areas

In Summary
  • The cults have been taking advantage of cultural heritage to encourage retrogressive practices, such as FGM.
  • The cults target women with longstanding marital issues or illnesses who are asked to undergo the cut to ward off bad luck.
Murang'a County Commissioner Fredrick Ndunga.
Murang'a County Commissioner Fredrick Ndunga.
Image: Alice Waithera
FIDA-Kenya deputy director Wanjiru Kamanda and programmes offcer Alice Maranga at Murang'a Teachers Training College during an FGM sensitization programme.
FIDA-Kenya deputy director Wanjiru Kamanda and programmes offcer Alice Maranga at Murang'a Teachers Training College during an FGM sensitization programme.
Image: Alice Waithera
The woman from Kandara who accused her husband of forcefully circumcising her on June 9 this year.
The woman from Kandara who accused her husband of forcefully circumcising her on June 9 this year.
Image: Alice Waithera
Murang'a principal nursing officer coordinating reproductive health services Caroline Macharia.
Murang'a principal nursing officer coordinating reproductive health services Caroline Macharia.
Image: Alice Waithera

Every weekend, scores of people in the Central region congregate in their rural areas to hold cultural ceremonies where goats are slaughtered and prayers offered.

The tradition has become so rampant that it is taking root even in urban areas as people, mostly elite men, come together to celebrate their cultural heritage.

But with the renewed love for culture, retrogressive practices that had been phased out over time are slowly finding their way back into the community.

This happens as the government strives to eradicate female genital mutilation (FGM) in the country by next year.

It is reported that cults, hiding behind the cover of culture, are encouraging their followers to undergo rites of passage that include FGM to appease ancestors and ward off bad luck.

This has seen scores of women, especially those with longstanding marital issues, illnesses, or children deemed to be problematic, approach medical practitioners to secretly undergo the cut.

In July, Murang’a county hit the headlines when a woman accused her husband of mobilising a gang of men to circumcise her in their home in Kandara.

She said her husband’s behaviour suddenly changed after he joined Gwata Ndai cult.

The woman told journalists that her husband became violent and threatened to circumcise her and her three daughters, saying he would not live with uncircumcised women.

On June 9, her husband unleashed a gang of about 30 men to their home who pinned her down, tore her clothes and started circumcising her.

One man took a needle and pricked her private parts while threatening to complete the process using his fingernails.

But the agonising pain caused her to scream loudly before the men fled, leaving her bleeding. She, thereafter, left with her children and moved to a rental house.

Her story elicited different reactions from the public, some sympathising with her, while some felt she was soiling the image of her home area.

One of the women who took her to Murang’a General Hospital for treatment said she was attended to by a male practitioner who noted on the victim's medical report that she had undergone sexual assault and was bleeding. The medic later sent her to have a scan.

The woman, who accompanied the victim, however, said the medical report cast doubts on whether she had indeed been circumcised. This disoriented her and caused her to recant her story.

The source said she eventually sank into depression before well-wishers whisked her to a hospital in Nairobi where she stayed for two weeks for further treatment.

The wounds she had sustained had by then turned septic and occasioned her immense pain.

“The wounds had pus and made it very painful for her to pass urine,” said the woman who sought anonymity, adding that she has since healed but struggles to support her three daughters.

Wanjiru Kamanda, Fida-Kenya deputy executive director, said they were shocked to receive a distress call from Murang’a.

The organisation dispatched counsellors to talk to her as she was traumatised, she said.

 “We have had many women making reports about gangs or cults intending to circumcise them and we have done numerous rescues, but never in Murang’a,” she said.

Wanjiru said doctors who collude with husbands to have women circumcised during childbirth will soon face the law.

She noted that in Nakuru and Kericho counties, women who willingly undergo the rite have been prosecuted.

She added that Fida-Kenya will consider organising training forums for police officers and doctors to ensure they curb the rising cases of FGM and ease the prosecution of culprits.

“Both the police officer and doctor who handled her did not indicate that she had undergone FGM which complicated her case,” she said.

But Murang’a county commissioner Fredrick Ndunga insisted that there was no evidence that the woman was circumcised.

“When she reported to the police, she did not indicate that she had been circumcised and neither did her medical report give such findings,” Ndunga told the Star, saying she reported that she had been assaulted.

Police immediately arrested the suspect together with two accomplices and charged them with assault, issuing threats and being in possession of bhang.

Ndunga, however, confirmed receiving reports that at least four cults have been encouraging women to undergo FGM in the county.

He noted that the cults operate in great secrecy that makes it impossible for non-members to understand their operations.

“None of the said victims has come out to say that they have been circumcised even after encouraging them to do so anonymously through the 988 national hotline,” Ndunga said.

This, in turn, has made it difficult for security officers to take measures against the cults.

Ndunga said investigations into the cults are ongoing and once they get hold of the evidence, the perpetrators will be prosecuted.

He called on the church and political leaders to help fight the cults by cautioning locals against falling prey to them.

Kikuyu Kiama Kia Ma council of elders national chairperson Ndung’u Gaithuma said the emergence of cults has been experienced in many parts of Central.

Gaithuma said the council has started an awareness campaign with the media to inform members of the community against excessive cultural practices.

“These cults take advantage of people going through chronic situations to exploit them by instilling cultural fears,” he said.

The council, he noted, has worked with security officers to have shrines used by cults, especially Gwata Ndai, to be shut down in areas like Ndumberi (Kiambu county), and Mai Mahiu in Naivasha.

“Once we identify such places, we link up with the local security team to have them stopped,” he added.

The council pledged to continue using the media to discourage the medicalisation of the practice.

Bernadette Loloju, the Anti-FGM board CEO said FGM prevalence rate in the country by 2014 was 21 percent, about 4 million women.

According to the 2014 Kenya Demographic Health Survey, about three percent of girls aged below 15 years had undergone the cut.

The Somali community was worst hit with a prevalence rate of 94 percent followed by the Kisii, Samburu, Pokot and Kuria communities.

Among the Kikuyu community, about 14.6 percent of women and girls had been affected while the Meru community’s prevalence rate was at 32 percent.

Loloju, who spoke while addressing a virtual meeting organised by Journalists for Human Rights, said the board is prioritising community dialogue as one of the main ways of discouraging FGM.

“We have also started Youth Anti-FGM networks in all affected counties that bring in university students. That is the generation that will end FGM once and for all,” she said.

Caroline Macharia, principal nursing officer coordinating reproductive health services in Murang’a county said FGM is a major cause of maternal mortality during childbirth.

The practice is mostly done by quacks and can cause sepsis (a situation in which the body extremely reacts to an infection by triggering a series of other reactions) and chronic urinary tract infections.

“The scars resulting from FGM make it hard to perform vaginal examinations during delivery, prolong labour and cause postpartum haemorrhage,” she said.

Genital mutilation also causes menstrual complications due to constrained vaginal orifice that obstruct the menstrual flow.

“Chronic genital infections are the biggest challenge that FGM survivors face and it affects the quality of their lives,” she said.