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Fresh controversy on FGM pits science against popular belief

By Kamau Muthoni | October 27th 2019 at 12:00:00 GMT +0300

Dr.Tatu Kamau in the witness dock at a Milimani court.

The debate on female genital mutilation (FGM) will reignite decades long debate whether it is beneficial for women to undergo the cut.

Abhorred in the 1920s by the church and banned by the government in 2011, the cultural practice is again at the centre of a controversy between a medical doctor and the government.  

High Court judges Lydiah Achode, Margaret Muigai and Kanyi Kimondo will have to consider science, as presented by medical experts in support of governments case that FGM should remain illegal as it has no benefit at all.

The three judges will also factor in Dr Tatu Kamau’s spirited argument that if the cut is done by medical professionals, it will eliminate harm and is beneficial.

The government’s biggest worry is that if the law criminalising the traditional practice is declared unconstitutional, then young girls will be exposed to harm and early marriages.

Customary practice

“The petitioner fails to appreciate that FGM is a customary practice performed on young girls to signify the onset of puberty,” State lawyers argue adding that it is very rare for adult women to get the cut.

“The orders sought will ultimately threaten, infringe upon and/or offend the girls’ right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.”

Dr Kamau, in her testimony before court says she has practiced medicine for 31 years and has conducted research to prove that female circumcision, although banned by the government, favours women.

The doctor claims the ban contains untruths about female circumcision and at the same time fails to tame cosmetic surgeries which allegedly involve similar processes as the practice.

“There is nothing unethical in medical field about female genital surgeries. We do it for cosmetic reasons. If an adult girl wants to be circumcised, then she should be left to do it and that should be respected,” argues Dr Kamau.

Graduate into a woman

This is a second time in Kenya’s history that the debate on the cut has caused a controversy. The first controversy erupted in 1929 when the church came up with a demand that all their followers in Mt Kenya stop practising female circumcision.

As Charles Hornsby writes, banning the cut then escalated the split between those aligned to the church and believed to condone the colonial master and freedom fighters.

Among the Kikuyu, he says, it was unheard of for an uninitiated girl to graduate into a woman, a wife or a mother.

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

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 nine “that all Christians submitting to it should be suspended by churches everywhere.”

Dr John Arthur, head of the Church Mission Society touched off the revolution by ‘putting his thumb on the resolution.’

Arthur and the other missionaries unwittingly played into the hands of Kikuyu Central Association (KCA) founded by Harry Thuku.

The impetus created by the female circumcision row provided a golden opportunity for an upcoming leader, Jomo Kenyatta, who needed a platform to launch his career.

KCA used female circumcision as a rallying point for stirring up dissent against the government.

More fertile

According to the country policy and information note on FGM, released July 2018, the highest number of those likely to undergo the cut are aged between 12 and 18 but others were below 10.

Dr Kamau argues that female circumcision is a culture which should be allowed for willing adult women. She said that “those who have undergone the cut are more fertile.” “Women who take their girls for circumcision did not take them there to destroy them. Instead, there is celebration and the girls are introduced to adulthood,” the doctor argued.

She is supported by a former police officer Joseph Kiplagat arap Koech, who argues that Kenyan women should be allowed to go for the cut as they are liberated. 

“My wife and I are circumcised. Abraham gave a command. It is a shame not to be circumcised,” he said.

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