The 2011 Anti- Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) Act which prohibits the practice of FGM is bearing fruit. This is evident in the drop in the prevalence rate from 27 to 21 per cent in the last decade. The Act provides for a three-year to life in prison for practitioners.
However, traditionalists have continued to advance excuses to justify the continuation of the outlawed practice, at times advancing excuses that border on the bizarre.
Regardless of the acronym we use for the practice, the adverse long-term effect on the sexual and reproductive health of victims is now clear, thanks to the testimonials that advocacy campaigns have conducted. None are better versed with the medical implications of female circumcision better than the medical personnel who have witnessed the agony circumcised women undergo in the labour wards.
It is, therefore, surprising that medical workers are some of the culprits fuelling the practice in public and private medical facilities. It is estimated that 18 per cent of all FGM cases are now performed by qualified medical personnel. They are replacing the traditional circumciser that the community worked so hard to convince to abandon the trade. In some countries, medicalisation of circumcision is as high as 74 per cent. The jury is still out on the motivations of these professionals though suspicions are rife that greed tops the ignoble list.
A few years ago, conservatives would secretly send their children from the urban areas to distant relatives in the villages to have them cut in secret. This practice was reduced, if not wholly eliminated, owing to enforcement of a stringent legal framework and advocacy programmes.
With such gains, one would have envisaged a major decrease. However, today, dyed-in-the-wool traditionalists move to neighbouring countries to escape the stringent law in the country. In efforts to beat the law, cross-border FGM is now a reality. The practice was becoming so pervasive that Kenya, Somalia, Uganda, Tanzania, and Ethiopia found it necessary to sign a declaration to stop the escalation across their borders.
Another strategy used to conceal detection by authorities is the lowering of the age of cutting. This approach seems self-defeating as it flies in the face of apologists who term the practice a rite of passage. Pray, how does a parent or community choose to take a toddler through a painful ritual that will potentially harm the child in the guise of a rite of passage?
Given the evolution and development in the practice, women’s rights programmes have had to continually evaluate and adjust programmes and approaches for effectiveness. In Kenya, the Anti-FGM Board has been carrying out community capacity building on the Anti-FGM Act while promoting alternative rites of passage.
It has developed a school curriculum to raise awareness on the dangers of FGM at an early age. It recently organised workshops for duty bearers and sensitised them on their obligations on enforcement of the law. It has even lobbied for establishment of a special unit at the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions to prosecute FGM cases. Despite the efforts, the practice remains as stubborn as a mule.
The latest arrow in the advocacy quiver is an approach that aims to address the entire ecosystem of female circumcision practice. While the campaign has made tremendous progress on the individual behavioural sub-system, interventions targeting the immediate family, community, institutional and social subsystems that determine and reinforce behaviours and practices are needed.
Engaging with these subsystems shall help redefine the practice and the value the community places on it. It is this level of targeted intervention that will bring about the required sustainable change on the systems that manifestly and latently support the practice.
For starters, the Government through the Ministry of Public Service Youth and Gender has convened a High Level Elders meeting to bring on board community elders and opinion shapers from the FGM hotspots in 22 counties. This convention is designed to bridge the divide between cultural rights claimed by conservative cultural champions, with the individual rights of the girls and women who are adversely affected by the practice. Ultimately, interventions shall be guided by the universal rights’ dogma that individual and cultural rights should be practiced without infringing on the fundamental rights of the women and girls.
This fresh initiative is championed by the President who has made a personal commitment to see the practice abandoned in the country by 2022. The President started a candid national discourse starting with cultural gatekeepers and opinion shapers ahead of the International Conference on Population and Development, ICPD25 which starts in Nairobi today.
With such commitment and sustained programming, the country can accelerate and meet the promises of the vision of the Cairo meeting. Dialogue will ensure gender equality, access to health and education services for all. We invite you to step up and be heard.