February 6 is International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).
FGM is a grave violation of women and girls’ rights, with lifelong implications. It robs girls of their childhood, entrenches gender inequality, and causes serious physical and mental harm.
Despite being internationally recognised as a human rights violation, FGM has been performed on at least 200 million girls and women in 31 countries across three continents. And it continues – an additional four million girls are at risk of undergoing FGM globally each year.
According to the recently released Kenya Demographic and Health Survey (KDHS) data for 2022, the prevalence of FGM is 15 per cent in the country, meaning that 15 per cent of girls and women aged 15 to 49 have been circumcised. This is much too high.
Yet, progress is being made. In 2014, the prevalence was 21 per cent, and in 1998 it was 38 per cent. One of the lessons learned from this progress is that ending FGM calls for the active participation of boys and men.
Why is this? It is not that males and females differ much on the merits of ending FGM. A 2020 study by the United Nations Population Fund-UNICEF Joint Programme on the Elimination of FGM found that 89 per cent of boys and men and 92 per cent of girls and women were opposed to FGM.
The issue rather lies in taking action to address gender inequalities and discriminatory social norms that sustain the practice of FGM, particularly those that challenge patriarchy. The key to overcoming this is in the active involvement of boys and men as allies and partners in ending FGM.
UNFPA and UNICEF have been working jointly to tackle FGM under the Joint Programme since 2008. The programme has been working to shift social norms in affected communities while working with governments to put in place viable national response systems. It also builds a global movement of allies and works with healthcare workers and girls undergoing FGM across borders in neighbouring countries.
Presently, more than 52 men and boys networks in Kenya are involved in advocating for elimination of FGM, with members playing a critical role in raising awareness, community surveillance and reporting of FGM cases.
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UNFPA and UNICEF partner with men-led grassroot organisations such as Men End FGM Foundation and Pastoralist Child Foundation in Samburu and Umoja Development Organisation in West Pokot. Through this, we work with fathers, brothers, religious leaders, decision-makers and elders who have joined the mission to eliminate FGM as allies and protectors of the rights of girls and women.
Eliminating FGM does not benefit only girls and women. The economic cost of FGM has a direct impact on the development of the nation, affecting generations from childbirth into adulthood. Treating the health complications caused by FGM puts a significant burden on health systems, national and county budgets.
It also widens the gender education gap and affects women’s ability to contribute fully to the workforce. All of this hinders Kenya’s progress towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.
National and county governments, the UN and partners must all work together to increase the engagement of male cultural, religious and political leaders as key stakeholders in the national action plan to end FGM. In schools and other youth spaces, mentorship and life skills building for boys can empower them with the information and skills to prevent and report cases of FGM.
In addition to men and boys, the task of ending FGM also includes the role of the State and other actors, such as cutters, religious leaders and enforcement bodies.
At the community level, we must create opportunities for men and boys to play a visible and active role in leading dialogues and challenging social and gender norms, stereotypes and practices that continue to perpetuate FGM and other harmful practices such as child marriage.
FGM and child marriage are intertwined, exacerbated by drought, and often lead to girls dropping out of school, further curtailing their prospects in life.
These efforts, combined with programmes that empower women and girls to realise their rights through access to education, healthcare and economic opportunities will help move us towards a society free from FGM, as envisioned in Kenya’s Vision 2030, for the benefit of all.
-Mr Thomsen is the UNFPA Representative to Kenya. Ms Nilofer is the UNICEF Representative to Kenya