Female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) is the ritual cutting or removal of some or all of the external female genitalia. Despite a myriad of interventions that have been implemented across Kenya in areas where (FGM/C) persists, community abandonment of the practice has been slow and uneven.
I chose to focus on Kisii in this particular piece because it is one of the areas in the country where the practice is still firmly entrenched. In my role as a researcher with the Population Council, there are a few things I learnt.
FGM is still done by the wealthy and educated
While one might assume the comparatively well off and educated people would be more likely to abandon the practice, new evidence reveals the complexity of a practice that is deeply entrenched with social norms.
2. It is increasingly being done in hospitals
To learn more about the practice and its persistence, in 2017, we reviewed the Kenya Demographic and Health Surveys from 1998 to 2014 and the results were startling: while the practice is generally declining at a national level, the prevalence is still high among younger girls of certain ethnic communities, the practice is increasingly conducted in medical settings and shifting toward less severe forms. Thus, rather than abandonment, people are responding to abandonment efforts by simply modifying the way FGM/C is carried out. These findings held true even in Kisii—a county predominantly occupied by the Abagusii people who are comparatively better off and educated.
If neither the power of wealth nor knowledge are protective against FGM/C, what are the factors that might help us encourage abandonment?
3. Women, more than men, think sexual restraint, brought about by FGM, is an advantage
The research deepened our understanding of female genital mutilation with an in-depth study in Kisii County, where we interviewed young and old women and men about what drives community members to practice FGM/C. These discussions revealed new insights about the linkage between FGM/C and sexuality, marriageability, culture/tradition and respect. While women considered sexual restraint an advantage attributed to FGM/C that would help uphold morality and fidelity in marriage, and even embodied feminine virtue and identity, some of the male respondents found FGM/C to be a disadvantage as cut women were considered less satisfying sexual partners. These men believed that a woman’s diminished sexual desire following FGM/C might trigger infidelity and increase marital conflict. Women were therefore supporting a practice they thought men supported, while many men were in fact questioning the practice as a marital strategy.
4. Women supported the stigma meted out to the uncut
In many Kenyan communities, culture/tradition have been frequently mentioned as one of the key drivers of FGM/C and the practice is reinforced by mutual expectations about conforming to social norms. In Kisii, social sanctions for the uncut—such as verbal insults and exclusion from female social networks—were strongly supported by women. FGM/C was also perceived to be strongly tied to respect, including being passive, obedient and subservient. Girls who have undergone FGM/C, which among the Abagusii involves a period of seclusion and training on how to behave around elders and men—are seen to be more respectful of others and are in turn treated with respect by family and community members.
5. Programs and policies need to do more
Based on this in-depth research in Kisii County, it is clear that FGM/C is a complex social behaviour that requires a holistic, nuanced response that addresses the underlying issues that sustain FGM/C. Programs and policies must do more than educate about health consequences or declare the practice illegal, and actually address complex social expectations and the desire to conform. Failing to do so can actually be counterproductive, or even harmful, leading community members to focus on managing risk rather than abandonment. We saw in Kisii that people who were seeking FGM/C were majorly procuring services from healthcare professionals, performing FGM/C at younger ages, and carrying out FGM/C in secret to avoid criminal punishment.
6. Challenge discriminatory gender norms
Signs that some Kisii men are supporting uncut women suggests there is more room to explore a process towards abandonment, including engaging men as brothers, fathers, husbands and members of the community.
Dr Dennis Matanda is a researcher at Population Council, Nairobi.
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