By Tabitha Oeri
Nyaboke Moraa bled profusely when she was transiting to womanhood though she didn’t shed a tear because she was expected to show bravery. Crying was not an option because her granny, mother, elder sisters and the entire female community was gracing the occasion.
After all, they had also gone through the cut and non among them cried, she was not ready to break the streak. After years of preparation, she was ready and early that morning, she was taken to the river to face the village circumciser, Omosaari, as she is known in the local dialect.
Moraa was ushered into womanhood with ululation and she was sung for omoino, a song that praised her for having conquered the blade and the second most important milestone in life, after birth…this is how she was raised among her people in Gusii famously known as Kisii.
Female circumcision is a rite of passage among her people and every girl looks forward to the day when she will assume the role of a woman in this beautiful highlands in western Kenya.
There are many factors that contribute to the prevalence of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) but in every society in which it occurs, it is a manifestation of entrenched gender inequality.
In Kisii Community the practice is rife though done traditionally by elderly women or medically in hospitals by qualified doctors secretly. This habit is usually encouraged by parents who believe in it as a cultural norm for rite of passage to their daughters.
According to Mary Ong’eta majority of Kisii community are Christians and enlighten but still believe in traditional retrogressive cultural practices which have been overtaken by time. She explains when schools closed last year in response to Covid-19 pandemic, parents took the advantage of the situation to have their daughters cut.
“It was very sad to witness school girls go through female circumcision in closed indoors especially at night. It increased cases of FGM, child marriages and sexual violence something that was already diminishing in the community. Those who fear traditional method went for the safer one in hospitals organized by community leaders at a cost,” Ong’eta regretted.
“I know of educated parents who had their daughters living with them in urban towns like Nairobi opted for medical in health facilities. They believe in customs so much that even the enlighten families cannot avoid due to perceived benefits associated with it,” Ong’eta explained.
Ong’eta disclosed that Kisii community especially men believe in women who are circumcised for spouses. Men believe a circumcised woman have low sexual libido therefore cannot engage in extra-marital affairs or prostitution. As result of this perceived believe, ladies tend to outshine each other to get fellow ethnic men to preserve culture.
Female genital mutilation (FGM), is internationally recognized as a violation of human rights hence Gender Based Violence (GBV). However, according to UNFPA approximately 200 million girls worldwide are at risk of undergoing this harmful practice every year, many of them under the age of 15.
There are many factors that contribute to the prevalence of FGM but in every society in which it occurs, it is a manifestation of entrenched gender inequality.
According UNICEF, in Kenya around 4 million, or one in five, women and girls have been subjected to FGM. While in some communities, this rises as high as 94 percent. Although overall these numbers have declined over recent years, they still remain much too high.
This shows that the gains made so far against this practice can be precarious. In cultures where female genital mutilation is entrenched in tradition and social norms, it takes real courage for one to speak up against it.
Again, community encourages women to get cut because during marriage, parents are entitled to hefty dowries compared to uncircumcised women. Families whose girls are not circumcised or opposed to FGM are stigmatized or discriminated.
Joyce Kwamboka 14 years old, not her real name, escaped from her parents in upcountry because of being to FGM and came to stay with her aunt in Nairobi. She regretted that one of her sisters gave in to pressure for her continue with secondary education.
Kwamboka revealed very day, survivors of FGM like her are calling for an end to FGM. This is because most of girls have been told and knows the long-term physical, psychological and social consequences of FGM.
“I know very the danger it poses to the current and future generation of girls and women. It is time to listen and act fast in addressing these harmful gender norms that perpetuate the practice. We have less than one to do this if we are to realize Kenya’s goal,” Kwamboka passionately pleaded.
According to Dr Nelly Bosire, Gynecologist, FGM has negative devastative health effects of a woman especially during birth. The scar left by the cut do cause complications resulting to severe bleeding.
Dr Bosire alluded because FGM is rooted in gender inequality and power imbalances, fighting it requires changing the cultural and social norms that increase the risk of harm to women.
“This means addressing all other forms of violence and harmful practices such as child marriage, as well as physical, sexual and psychological violence occurring in the family, institutions and our communities,” Dr Bosire advised.
Dr Bosire said religious leaders, elders, and other cultural gatekeepers hold the key to the abandonment of FGM by entire communities. They can make public statements delinking female genital mutilation from religious teachings and ethnic culture.
Past decrees from the Borana Council of Elders, Pokot elders, the Tana Delta elders, the Loita Maasai elders and others have outlawed the practice amongst their ethnic groups, paving way for alternative rites of passage that honor the rights and well-being of women and girls. In addition, 2019, religious and cultural leaders from across the country collectively signed a commitment to support government efforts in ending FGM, during a meeting held in State House Nairobi.
It is after this meeting that President Uhuru Kenyatta made the bold and important pledge to eliminate FGM in Kenya by 2022. The government response put the country ahead of its neighbors in the fight against FGM.
However, President Kenyatta cautioned that it required sustainable domestic funding and prevention programs, through national and county budget lines, and contributions from the private sector and other local institutions.
The president urged county governments to work hand in hand with grassroots organizations and communities to develop strategies for challenging the social norms and behaviors that drive female genital mutilation.
Rachel Shebesh, the Ministry of Public Service and Gender Chief Administrative Secretary (CAS) in the Ministry of Public Services and Gender admitted that within the 22 counties with high prevalence of FGM in Kenya, there is worrying trend emerging, such as the medicalization of FGM, girls cutting themselves, increased cross-border FGM, cutting of married women and the cutting of younger girls and infants.
Shebesh said an estimated 574,000 additional Kenyan girls are at risk of undergoing FGM between now and 2030 unless urgent action is taken to prevent it. Thankfully, ending FGM is a national priority in Kenya, with an action plan to end the practice by 2022.
“There are many cases of GBV that have been reported in the media during this coronavirus period, and as such, the President asked us to visit the entire country and ensure that we have enough rescue centers to assist GBV victims,” Shebesh said.
Shebesh urged security agencies in Kisii County and other county experiencing the same to follow up on GBV cases and ensure that perpetrators are arrested and charged in court.
On her part, Janet Ong’era, Kisii County Women Representative decried the high prevalence of GBV in Kisii which is at 23 percent against the national prevalence of 17 percent as well as partner offenses which stands at over 60 percent.
“We have built a GBV- rescue center following a surge in GBV including FGM for victims in this region to serve as safety haven to console many girls,” Ong’era said.
Joshua Muthoka, Kisii Central Assistant County Commissioner urges area residents to report any cases of GBV to local administrators and police officers and promised that any person accused of perpetrating the vice would be dealt with severely.
Dr Ademola Olajide UNFPA Representative and Maina Zaman, UNICEF Representative both are helping to provide girls and women with access to suitable care, while mobilizing communities to transform the social norms that uphold the practice.
“Kenya is among countries in the world celebrated each year during the marking of International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation every 6 February annually for its efforts against FGM. So, let us unite and act together to achieve the goal of an FGM-free Kenya. This is not just another cause, it is about a gross violation of human rights, and one which we can completely stop if we all have the will and determination,” Dr Olajide revealed.
While Zaman of Unicef said establishing strong community surveillance mechanisms is crucial to ensuring the protection of at-risk girls and women, while collaboration between community leaders and law enforcement officers can help curb these emerging trends and prevent cross-border FGM.
Currently, through the Joint Programme on Ending FGM, UNFPA and UNICEF are providing financial and technical support to the Ministry of Public Service and Gender to help implement the Presidential Costed Action Plan to End FGM in Kenya by 2022.