By Xilun Wei, Qiyuan Qin, Jing Liu, Jingxuan Huang
2020 is a year of change in many ways. What remains constant is the fight against the long-lasting practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), defined by the World Health Organization as “the partial or total removal of external female genitalia or other injuries to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.” It is recognized by the United Nations as a violation of human rights among girls and women and reflects deep-rooted inequality between men and women as it constitutes and perpetuates an extreme form of gender-based violence against women and girls. More than 200 million girls and women alive today have been cut in 30 countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia where FGM is concentrated, and each year it is estimated that an additional 3 million girls are at risk of being subjected to this practice globally. FGM can cause severe bleeding and problems urinating, and later cysts, infections, as well as complications in childbirth and increased risk of newborn deaths.
In Kenya, FGM has been officially banned by law in 2011, and the FGM incidence rate has decreased among adolescent girls. According to the Kenya Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS), FGM inflicted females aged 15 to 19 years decreased from 5 in 10 to a lower number of 1 in 10 over the course of three decades. Nevertheless, this practice is still prevalent in the Northeastern Region of Kenya. Overall, 98% of girls and women aged 15 to 49 years have undergone FGM compared to the national average of 21% and 1% in the Western Region. In the past six months, FGM has posed an even greater threat due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as school closure has caused many girls and women to be confined in their communities and households, with nowhere to run from FGM and nobody noticing what they are going through. This is especially the case among Kenyan-Ethiopian, Kenyan-Somalis, and Maasai communities where FGM has been the norm for women and girls.
In the region the Maasai populations live, around 80% of women have either undergone or are subject to FGM. A close-knit and semi-nomadic ethnic group, Maasai has a uniquely conserved lifestyle and it is hard to unlearn a deeply rooted tradition as FGM. In Maasai culture, FGM is accompanied by a carnival-themed ceremony to celebrate the girl’s successful completion of cutting. The girl’s reaction during cutting determines her status in the tribe – if she does not shed tears or flinch throughout the extremely painful process, she will be regarded as a heroic presence and her tribe will respect her bravery. On the contrary, a girl who does not go through FGM in due time is seen as a shame to her family and herself, unchaste and cursed by her ancestors. The community, both her peers and the elders, would mock and alienate her.
For most Maasai people, FGM is not only an important rite of passage (transition from girlhood to womanhood) but also a symbol closely tied to marriageability. “A 14-year-old circumcised Maasai girl has more authorities than a 16-year-old uncircumcised woman. Because if you are uncircumcised, you are just a child, and no one would listen to a child.” Said Marias Ripau, Education and Skills Manager at The Maa Trust, a nonprofit working with Maasai community elders to keep children in school. “One day, a girl came to our office, and we knew the risk of keeping that kid at our office. So one of my colleagues took the kid back to her house. The next day, we had a number of adult men come into our office with all kinds of sticks and swords, saying things like, ‘we want our daughter back, you do not have a right to send our daughter to school…we are marrying her off.’ We have experienced that sort of thing in so many ways.” With the external pressure to end FGM, nowadays people choose to secretly cut the girls at night to avoid unwanted attention. “The Maasai chiefs are practicing FGM themselves when they should be the ones to help us end FGM.”
Marias was born and raised in a Maasai community. After leaving home to pursue higher education, he became an activist that advocates for the rights of Maasai girls, including ending FGM. His wife, Simaloi, did not go through FGM and is also an anti-FGM activist. He also advocated for and protected his sister, Simel, from undergoing FGM by educating his parents on FGM’s negative health consequences and misconceptions about the procedure. While FGM eradication will not be easy, young leaders like Marias from within the Maasai community give us hope for effective and sustainable change.
However, education is not a silver bullet for changing attitudes and behaviors. “We have also seen a lot of cases of African girls coming from abroad, coming from the United Kingdom and the USA back to Africa to be cut, so that they can go back to the western countries and marry fellow Africans who only marry girls who have been cut.” Western education does not guarantee girl’s agency to say no to a deeply rooted social norm.
As illustrated from the cases above, there are five major reasons why FGM remains rampant in Kenya despite great efforts:
The first one is the long-established traditions. Most ethnic groups that practice FGM firmly adhere to traditional practices as the fabric for their communities. Transforming the way people think about FGM would pose great challenges to their cultural DNA and ethnic/religious identities. Maasai ancient mythology mentioned that if a girl becomes pregnant without being circumcised, she will bring disaster to the one who made her pregnant. Marias pointed out that in Maasai communities, for those who have lost their lives during FGM, the local community members blame it as “bad luck” and falsely claim that FGM will not cause severe harms nor death. Such social pressure causes Maasai girls to “voluntarily” undergo FGM.
Secondly, people lack accurate and sufficient information to develop alternative attitudes towards FGM. Most of the regions where FGM is practiced are underdeveloped, and the education attainment rate is relatively low. This means that most people there are unaware of the severe consequences that FGM brings and the option they have to say no. Marias explained that while the world has witnessed many heated discussions and progressive initiatives to end FGM, the idea that FGM is harmful is still new to many local communities. Lack of education and awareness is one of the leading causes that contribute to the continuation of FGM among Maasai people to date. Albert from CSA also discussed the role of education: many parents cut their daughters when they are as young as three years old so that the education the girls would later receive cannot influence them to resist this practice.
Thirdly, with improved medical care, some communities have gradually acquired the techniques to mitigate the physical harms of FGM, thus making it more acceptable and “rationalized,” despite the fact that the risks and aftereffects still remain dire. Located in Nyanza Province in south-western Kenya, Kisii is a place where FGM is considered necessary to control women’s sexual pleasures and thus preserve their sexual purity. According to DHS and UNICEF, there has been a shift from the “traditional” operations to a “sanitized” method – or medicalization – of FGM, meaning medical professionals/personnel are paid by the parents with a considerable amount of money to perform FGM on their daughters. The medicalization of FGM in Kisii is based on the perception that health workers are more discreet, skilled, and hygienic, so it mitigates the risk of catching HIV/AIDS, accelerates recovery, and helps avoid attention and controversies. However, this does not necessarily make FGM safer or less harmful, as it still ignores the long-term sexual, psychological, and gynecological complications of the practice.
Fourthly, with increased mobility, people who practice FGM are in more areas than before and thus make it more widespread geographically. Additionally, the government’s law enforcement capacity to stop FGM is limited, especially with FGM becoming more and more underground. Last but not least, though various stakeholders have worked hard to fight against FGM, there lacks consistent international attention that provides continuous resourcing for such efforts.
Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic has added to the severity of the problem. Because of social distancing measures, many on-the-ground awareness raising programs are paused. For instance, Marisa mentioned that the Maa Trust had used schools to educate children on anti-FGM laws and their rights, but that was put to a stop because of school closure. Once a shelter for kids who feared FGM, schools could not protect girls from such fear anymore.
The adaption is nothing but easy. Albert talked about some of the challenges CSA is facing: “we shifted most of our programming from physical meetings to online to Zoom meetings. However, because of poor Internet connection, we have not been able to reach the number of children that we want to reach. For the past six months, staffing has also been particularly hard because of reduced programming and funding.”
Local leaders and the civil society are the backbone of the fight against FGM, and the fight will go on. However, everyone around the world has a role to play. “A small action makes a big difference for them, be it a blog, a letter, a video clip,” Albert encouraged us with great hope at the end of the conversation.