Guest Blog by Margaret Gati.
Flashback to December 1998. I was 8 years old. We had gone to the village, a normal thing for families from Nairobi to do in December. It was certainly a time filled with festivities. People in the village were mostly speaking about circumcision ceremonies than the birth of Christ. This seemed a bit off to me seeing that my teachers said that December is a time when only Jesus should be celebrated.
I wasn’t too sure exactly what was happening but I do remember music, dancing and loads of food. There I was with my big sister, wearing matching pink dresses. We joined the group of girls dancing to ‘iritungu’, Kurian traditional music and dance. Little did I know we were actually celebrating the end of their circumcision ceremony.
Years later in August 2010, I am now a 20 year old and very inquisitive. I am in college and just got awarded a grant to do research on Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in Kuria. Though the practice still occurs, there is a bit more opposition on the ground. To my surprise it is mostly men who are not for the idea. I distinctly remember one man I interviewed saying in Swahili “si sisi wanaume, ni wanawake wenzako wanaipenda tohara”- It’s not us men, it’s your fellow women who love FGM.
I wondered how true that was. But after analyzing my findings from the qualitative study, I realized that many men have been shown to not support the practice. This is also supported by findings from a systematic review on the role of men in the abandonment of FGM. It indicated that many men wished to abandon the practice because of its psychosexual and physical complications. The debate surrounding the continued perpetuation of FGM was a good thing at this time. It was very much needed and long overdue.
For End FGM advocates in Kenya, 2011 was a good year. It was the implementation of the Prohibition of FGM act. The Bill provides for harsher penalties which include $5000 and a jail term of seven years for anyone convicted of abetting FGM. Many stories are told of communities who are willing to surrender the practice because of fear of being jailed. An aunt of mine who used to be a cutter says that she had to seek other means of livelihood. For me that statement alone indicated that a revolution was indeed happening at the grassroots level.
There was definitely more dialogue surrounding this practice not only in Kuria but in other practicing communities as well. Dialogue about the issue has helped to change the narrative of many girls. Data from the Population Reference Bureau indicates lower levels of cutting among teenage girls in various countries. This too affirms that abandonment efforts are indeed yielding positive results. Deeply entrenched social norms are now being questioned. Despite the risk, girls like Nancy, refuse to be circumcised, resulting in their social exclusion.
Fast forward to December 2015. I go back to the village once again for the normal monthly festivities. I have heard that girls are being circumcised this year and I am a bit nervous. As I had expected, I see newly circumcised girls walking in groups. They appear to be very proud of themselves and their new acknowledgement as women in society. But something has definitely changed. There are not as many girls who are circumcised this year. In fact, I am informed by one of them that the elders told them that they are the smallest group to ever be circumcised in Kurian history. As I sit by the market place, a man called Robi comes by me. He says to me, “I hope you didn’t fall victim of this practice.” With a sigh of relief and a momentary appreciation for my parents, I tell him no. He goes on to tell me about a meeting that happened a week ago in a neighboring village. It was another form of initiation passage for girls who had refused to undergo circumcision. It was a way for them to also have their recognition in society.
Though circumcision still happens, it seems that efforts to stop this practice have yielded good fruits. However, the numbers are still high therefore we must keep pushing for more action. Various factors are to blame for this. Bribery now seems to be the main perpetuator of the act. Many supporters of FGM now pay corrupt police and government officials to let them still practice FGM in the name of upholding tradition. Lack of proper education and exposure in various communities are also contributing factors. It is hard to change people’s perception about a tradition that has been a part of their culture for years in a way that is not intrusive and disrespectful. Advocacy must still be encouraged and implemented more on the ground level. I believe in a few years to come, these efforts will not be in vain. We must keep pushing for change.
If you want to learn more about FGM in Kenya read ‘Country Profile: FGM in Kenya’ by 28 Too Many.