International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation

Take five: “To end FGM, we have to break the culture of silence”

In Western Kenya FGM rates among younger girls is going up. Janet Anyango talks about what it will take to root out the practice

Date: Thursday, February 2, 2017

Janet Anyango, Programme Officer with the Federation of Women Lawyers, Kenya. Photo: Sandra Photography
Janet Anyango, Programme Officer with the Federation of Women Lawyers, Kenya. Photo: Sandra Photography

The International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is observed across the world on 6th February, to raise awareness and boost efforts to end the harmful practice. Globally, at least 200 million [1] girls and women alive today have undergone some form of FGM, which entails all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for cultural or other non-medical reasons. Janet Anyango, Programme Officer with the Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA), Kenya, talks about the practice of FGM in the communities and what is being done to end FGM. Ms. Anyango was among 29 participants trained on gender and FGM at a workshop in 2016, which was developed as part of a UN Women collaboration with the UNFPA-UNICEF joint programme on female genital mutilation/cutting.

How prevalent is FGM in the communities where you work?

In some communities of Western Kenya, female genital mutilation (FGM) is still practiced widely. For example, the prevalence is as high as 84 per cent among the Kisii. While the rate of FGM among women aged 15 – 45 years is declining, we are seeing an alarming increase in the practice among younger girls aged 8 – 14 years [2]. In spite of national and global advocacy, the practice continues to be promoted by men and women—women who discourage their sons from marrying “uncut women”, men who believe in the myths surrounding the practice and elders who justify it as a cultural rite of passage. Women and girls often succumb to peer pressure and agree to undergo FGM as they fear being outcasts otherwise.

What is driving the practice of FGM in the communities you work?

FGM is a cultural practice—not religious—driven by myths and beliefs, although the law in Kenya bans it. Sometimes it is incorrectly associated with Islam. In reality, it is being practised in multi-faith communities. For example, in Kenya, the predominant religion is Christianity. Many believe that the practice of FGM is a rite of passage for girls, and a prerequisite for marriage. Girls who are cut attract bigger dowries (bride price) and they gain respect among their peers. In some communities, both men and women hold on to myths such as FGM helps to control sexual desire in women and girls and ensures fidelity in marriage. These myths and beliefs are fueled by poverty, high illiteracy rates and ignorance of the medical effects or the legal consequences of the practice. The practice is rampant in communities that are farthest away, and hard to reach by roads.

What are the key challenges in addressing FGM?

Changing people’s perceptions and attitudes about FGM is the biggest challenge. The practice has become a social norm. So much so, that medical doctors and nurses have now started performing FGM on women and girls upon request, or sometimes even on their volition. Much more needs to be done to address the deeply held myths and beliefs in these communities. We are also engaging with health professionals to make them aware that performing the practice is a crime under the Prohibition of FGM Act of 2011, and it is a form of violence against women.

The work on ending FGM also involves educating the communities. High level of illiteracy has been a consistent impediment to engaging affected communities. In the meantime, even though the practice is outlawed under national law, some political leaders continue to openly promote the practice or remain silent on the issue due to the fear of losing voters.

Poverty too plays an important role in continuing the practice, as people performing it in impoverished communities rely on it as a means of income. Engaging the cutters in alternative income-generating activities has helped curb the practice in some communities.

How are you making an impact?

At the Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA), we provide legal aid to women and girls who have undergone FGM and to those seeking protection from the practice. We also work with perpetrators, the police, community elders and faith-based leaders to raise awareness about the law, the benefits of abandoning the practice, and to improve the investigation of cases.

Since attending the UN Women-led training, I have focused more on prevention of this harmful practice, to stop it before we have to ‘cure’ it.

Most recently, in Nyanza and Rift valley, the council of elders—who are widely respected as the custodians of culture—have made public declarations against the practice. The declarations are often a first step. For example, in 2011, members of the Pokot community unanimously signed a declaration to abandon the practice of FGM. In partnership with UNFPA and UNICEF, we have been working with the Pokot Council of Elders to ensure that they champion the issue. The Council of Elders has since referred 20 cases to FIDA and assists with rescuing girls and women at risk.

What will it take to end FGM?

To end FGM, we have to break the culture of silence. Survivors continue to suffer in silence under threat or fear of being outcast by their communities; witnesses fear coming out to testify; and thus the practice continues, unpunished.

As we commemorate the International Day for Zero Tolerance of Female Genital Mutilation, it is imperative to focus on strategies to advocate for alternative rites of passage for girls and publicly rewarding girls who have not undergone FGM. Also needed are safe spaces and shelters for school-aged girls at risk and survivors.

And finally, but of paramount importance, is engaging men in the conversation and advocacy to root out FGM and to fully implement the laws and policies that are already in place in Kenya.

Notes

[1] UNICEF (2016). Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting: A global concern

[2] Kenya Demographic Health Survey. (2014). p.331-342. See https://dhsprogram.com/pubs/pdf/fr308/fr308.pdf