SUCCESS A MIRAGE?

Tales of trauma, secrecy and hurdles in unending war on FGM

Practice still prevalent, especially in Kisii; is the government failing on its accountability role in the war?

In Summary

• Authorities have long struggled to curb the practice, which traditionally dictates proof of sexual purity. 

• But with a focus on fighting Covid-19, this has allowed FGM to take place.

Illustration of child abuse.
RIGHTS VIOLATION: Illustration of child abuse.
Image: COURTESY

When Christine* woke up one early morning, the facial expression all over her daughter's face made her worry.

She could not fathom the agony Nikita* was undergoing. She had been called names like Egesagane, a derogatory Kisii word for uncut girl.

Nikita's demeanour and self-esteem had been trampled on by some of the girls who had undergone female genital mutilation secretly.

"She hated being called Egesagane and every day she could come back from her playgroup spouting," Christine says.

EMBARRASSMENT, STIGMA

As she cooks in her kitchen in Kisii, Christine, a single mother of two, says her daughter was only six when she started getting pressure from her friends. She is now 12.

"That is when she insisted that she wanted to undergo the cut. At first, I resisted because this was a risky affair but then after pleading for a while, I gave in," Christine says.

In Kenya, about four million girls have undergone FGM. Overall, 21 per cent of girls and women aged 15 to 49 have been subjected to the practice, according to a 2020 Unicef report.

Unicef says Kisii comes second as the community that undergoes FGM secretly with 16 per cent, after Somali, which has 36 per cent.

Christine, 37, says she was forced to call medics in her home to cut her daughter.

"This was to make her comfortable around her friends. So the cut was done in my house at night and she stayed with me during that period," she says.

"There was nothing unique about it because after two days she was out with her friends. The cut was not like what we underwent because we stayed in seclusion for two weeks."

What the clinical officer did was to make a small cut on her clitoris to satisfy her ego and not to remove the whole of it. With this, she will still function as a woman when she gets married.
Christine Nyaboke

The cut made on Nikita was painful.

"What the clinical officer did was to make a small cut on her clitoris to satisfy her ego and not to remove the whole of it. With this, she will still function as a woman when she gets married," she says.

"Once the cut was done, there was little bleeding. I just asked her to maintain good hygiene and would occasionally ask her to wipe with a disinfectant."

But Christine says the repercussions of FGM did not prevent her from granting her daughter's wishes.

"I’m very much aware of the consequences. Of course, I was afraid because it’s illegal; that’s why we kept it a secret," she says.

"Actually even my close friends don’t know about it even though I suspect they have done the same to their daughters."

President Uhuru Kenyatta directed government agencies to ensure the law is enforced and action is taken against all FGM perpetrators.

The law stipulates a prison sentence of not less than three years or a fine of Sh200,000 for the crime. 

ILLEGAL

Nikita says she was hurt and disturbed by insults from her friends. 

"I’m not Egesagane now. I feel good because now I can associate with my friends without being called funny names. I also feel like I’m a big girl now and my friends and peers treat me as one of their own," she says.

Nikita says when the medic who cut her clitoris came to their house, she was not as brave as she had been advised to be.

"I was a bit nervous; however, I had to gather courage after she told me that it would not be painful. She applied something like spirit and made a cut, which was painful, but I was ready for it," she says.

After it was done, the medic applied the spirit again with cotton wool.

"This was very painful for a few minutes then I started the process of healing. I healed very fast because after four or five days I was playing with my friends. I would actually do skating," she says smiling.

Woman preparing to cut the girls.
Woman preparing to cut the girls.
Image: COURTESY

Nikita says the cut did not disrupt her education as it was done during the holiday.

"... and I would even do my homework while still healing. For me, legalisation of FGM or not, I don’t know. It’s already illegal, but we did it. Many things are illegal but they are still being done. Some are even going against the 10 commandments," she says.

FGM campaigner Christine Alfons says the vice might not be eradicated by next year.

"His (Uhuru's) words were a result of political goodwill; However, it might take time to eradicate it since people do it in secret," she says.

"This is a social norm and it will not happen overnight. Communities should accept its end and talk about it openly."

An 18-year-old Nancy* says she underwent FGM after sitting her KCPE exam five years ago.

"I didn’t know much about it because my mum took me to my grandmother and I stayed there for the December holiday. Many of my cousins joined us, which was unusual," she says.

That is when it dawned on us that we were about to undergo FGM. I called my mum who insisted I undergo it. I didn’t want to go against her because she is my parent and the bible says we obey our parents.
Nancy Kerubo

Nancy says a day before they underwent the cut, some aunties and their granny sat them down for about two hours.

"That is when it dawned on us that we were about to undergo FGM. I called my mum who insisted I undergo it. I didn’t want to go against her because she is my parent and the bible says we obey our parents," she says.

Nancy said the next morning a medic came to circumcise them.

"It was very painful. During that time, our granny used to give us some herbs to apply. When I remember that day, I fidget," she says.

After the FGM, they stayed with their grandmother for two weeks.

"She used to tell us that we were now grown-ups and that was a right of passage. My mum told me not to tell dad what had happened. Up to today, my dad doesn’t know. However, I feel like children should be given a choice to decide on whether or not to do the FGM," she says.

Nancy says the practice is illegal but prevalent.

"I know neighbours who did it on their girls during the long holiday, which was occasioned by a Covid-19 pandemic," she says.

"I also think FGM should be taught in schools so that children understand. That’s boys and girls because it’s a human rights issue. "

FGM Board CEO Bernadette Loloju says they have introduced FGM contents into the school curriculum to ensure Kenya achieves zero FGM.

“The only way out is to focus on the girl who has not been cut and tell her the truth about FGM. We have also included FGM content in CBC curriculum in schools,” she says.

“Men should also be trained so that they tell women that they are beautiful the way God created them and that they do not need any cut to be productive.”

MONEY FACTOR

But Mary*, a nurse, says she has been cutting girls for the past three years.

She says they are paid by parents, especially mothers, to perform the cut.

“We get paid between Sh500 and Sh1,000 per cut. This is a highly secretive venture because it's illegal so we refer to each other. Mostly, our friends refer us to clients. We don't decide on which girl to cut.”

She says that even though they are afraid of getting deregistered as nurses, they have to look for extra money to survive.

“Those little coins help us here in the village. In the last three years, I have done it to more than 100 girls and nothing has happened to me.”

This means she has been paid between Sh50,000 and Sh100,000. 

“These girls are referred to me by colleagues and friends. Sometimes I cut up to 10 girls a day. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the business was good for us.”

Mary has, however, has not undergone FGM.

"Personally, I'm not cut because my parents are Adventists. I don't advocate FGM but what I normally do, I just make a small cut on the clit. I don't do what you read in the press about removing the whole clit and sometimes lips,” she says.

She says some of the girls they cut just want to be "big girls".

“Once a girl bleeds, she now feels like she is a big girl and not Egesagane. Some parents want to have their girls cut to satisfy them. I'm aware of ladies who have been jailed because of doing FGM, but has it stopped FGM? No.”

Another nurse, Hellen*, says they have "modernised the cut".

“I have done it on many girls by the way. It started as a joke because a neighbour approached me to do it on her 10-year-old,” she says.

She says that with time she became an "expert" as more girls within Kisii county were brought to her.

“I have been doing it for three years now. What I do is not what was done to me. I just make a small cut there, make sure she bleeds a little then she is satisfied,” she says.

“I don't mutilate like it was done before. This thing is being done secretly so no one even knows I do it.”

STOPPING DEMAND

FGM board boss Loloju says there are policies that prohibit FGM. In 2011, Kenya passed a law that imposes tough penalties on perpetrators and those abetting the practice.

What we do is to sensitise the community by trying to cut the demand first. You have to stop families from taking their girls before trying to root out the medics. However, the government formed a multi-agency last year that has been tracking these medics,” she says.

“When we get information about them, their licence will be withdrawn. The parents are also the problem. A medic is like the market, the demand will make the medics do the cutting.”

She says that one hurdle in the war is people denying that it is happening.

“In Kisii, if we go to meetings, they get irritated when we say that they are undergoing the cut. They deny every time we meet them. The first thing when you hear there is a disease, you start by treating it. If a community denies it, how can you eradicate it?” she poses.

“The same medics will never cut their own daughters. You are cutting others because of money. Is it even ethical? No one has been trained in cutting and there is no guideline.”

Alfons recommends that families be engaged on FGM issues to understand the gravity of the problem.

"You find one person contemplating stopping but because her daughter will mingle with the uncut girls, they change their minds," she says.

But human rights advocate Sadiah Hussein from Tana River says what the government lacks is communication.

"Some people who are educated still go for medicalised FGM. Is it that people do not have facts, or there have not been proper discussions among communities?

"Culture is dynamic and if you don't put this forward while tackling FGM, it will go to waste. People should end FGM based on humanity, not relying on laws," she says.

She accuses some anti-FGM campaigners of being insincere and taking advantage to cash in on the problem.

Hussein says 70 per cent of people who fight FGM have no idea what it is and only 10 per cent in the remaining group are survivors.

"Billions come in the name of ending FGM but they do not reach communities. People are here to get allowances, not to end the vice," she says.

"When a man speaks in a house to stop a girl from getting cut, a mother or mother-in-law will do the cut secretly after getting some money or even after being persuaded, and the man will not know."

Hussein says real action should come from stakeholders.

"The mothers, the people involved, can be sensitised to facts and myths. Let them be told the truth. How can cutting a girl make them not desire sex? It's a myth. Let us not lie to the community," she adds.