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Minor who paid ultimate price in the struggle to end female cut

By Amos Kareithi | May 20th 2018
Girls undergo alternative rite of passage

Never before had the affairs of the country and the destiny of a people rested on the supple body of a primary schoolgirl.

This happened sometimes in June, 89 years ago, when a jealous stepmother wanted to get at her husband and co-wife.

The woman conspired with a traditional female circumciser and a young man, Gitau Nyorimi, to carry out a clandestine mission, which would prick two protagonists, the missionaries and the rationalists.

Her scheme, however, perfectly played into the hands of African politicians who got a rallying call whose ripple effects would be felt in every hamlet in Central Kenya and later in the corridors of power in London.

On the fateful day, the young girl was ambushed on a public road near School of Gospel Mission at Kambui.

And in what one clergyman, Robert MacPherson, describes in his book, Presbyterian Church in Kenya, as highly irregular circumstances according to customary practices, the teenage girl was forcefully and severely circumcised.

The matter would have ended there but the mission took it to court as this was not an ordinary crime and the issue of female circumcision in Central Kenya, where missionaries wielded immense spiritual power, was highly emotive.

Earlier in March 1929, the missionaries had struck the first blow against a custom held dear by a cross-section of Africans and leaders in Mt Kenya when during a conference in Tumutumu, Nyeri, they passed a resolution against female circumcision.

The men of God had passed a resolution that, “with one dissent that the custom is evil and should be abandoned by all Christians” and further, by a vote of 30 to 9 “that all Christians submitting to it should be suspended by churches everywhere”.

Stinging slap

So when the Kambui mission went to court, it expected a sympathetic ear from the colonial government but there was consternation when Justice Thomas, newly arrived from England, delivered a judgment considered a stinging slap on the face of the Christians.

In the hearing, it emerged that the girl at first screamed and struggled after she was seized but her protests subsided to an extent Justice Thomas was convinced she had given her consent.

The court also heard that although the girl’s father had not consented to the circumcision of his daughter, the victim’s stepmother had recruited a stranger, Nyorimi, to give consent to the circumciser.

The magistrate later concluded that the girl must have given her consent.

He rejected the charges of assault and fined the circumciser Sh30 for exceeding the amount of cutting permitted under the Kiambu Local Native Council by-laws.

The court threw out the case on technicality under section 88 of the Indian Penal Code (30).

The penal code stipulated that nothing which is not intended to cause death is an offense by reason of any harm it may cause or be known by the doer is likely to cause to any person for whose benefit it is done in good faith and who has given consent whether expressed or implied to suffer that harm or to take the risk of that harm.

When the mission appealed, the social media then went on the overdrive, employing the use of the innovative Muthirigu song at Native Industrial Training Kabete where social commentators attacked the whites, the chiefs and the government.

According to the song, the proponents of the circumcision ban were also planning to assassinate Jomo Kenyatta in London, and had been instrumental in raising Sh10,000 for the detention of Harry Thuku, the leader of Kikuyu Central Association (KCA), by the Europeans.

The song had lyrics such as “The DC Kiambu is bribed with uncircumcised girls so that land may go”, and it called for “Little knives in the sheaths, that we may fight the church”.

As Joseph Kangethe, who was at the time the KCA president, was having a field day as he mobilised supporters in Central Kenya, the church was seething in anger, smarting from government’s betrayal.

They were particularly irked when the government failed to appeal the judgment, further outraging Christians who feared that relatives of any girl or even members of the Gikuyu community could have her forcibly circumcised with only the risk of a nominal fine.

Dr JW Arthur, the leading champion against female circumcision at the time, wrote an editorial to the East African Standard on August 10, 1929, pleading for the African woman to be allowed the freedom to choose.

Petition against circumcision

He had further rallied chiefs Josiah Njonjo, Koinange Mbiyu Waruhiu and Philips on September 7 to support a draft petition against circumcision.

The petition read: “We humbly request the government to supply us with an ordinance that can support the circumcision for females that when a girl is circumcised unwillingly and without the authority of her parents, both father and mother, punishment may be awarded to the operators.”

Apparently, the missionaries were no match for the politicians who appealed to the emotions of their supporters and ultimately convinced the masses to back their cause.

Consequently, the church membership drastically declined during this period, as the raging female circumcision debate became a springboard for a new brand of politics which climaxed in the 1950s, leading to the inevitable clash between the government, the missionaries and Christians on the one hand against Africans who felt oppressed and disfranchised, on the other.

Although the crusade to ban female circumcision was started in 1920 when a declaration was made in Tumutumu by the missionaries, supported by 74 chiefs from the region, it was not until 2011 that a law criminalising the practice was passed.

The FGM Act was enacted in 2011, anchored on the 2010 Constitution and, among other things, spelt out fundamental human rights.

Article 29 of the Constitution provides that every person has the right to freedom and security, which includes the right not to be subjected to any form of violence from either public or private sources or subjected to torture in any manner whether physical or psychological.

Article 44 section 3, further stipulates that “a person shall not compel another to perform or observe or undergo any cultural practice or rite.”

The country has come a long way from the dark days where women were viewed as objects and has established a fully-fledged Anti-FGM Board with effect from December 2013, following the enactment of the Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act, 2013.

The board’s singular mission is to ensure the society is free from female genital mutilation by implementing the law that prohibits FGM in the country.  

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