When missionaries gave up on the war against FGM

FGM initiates, 1965. [File, Standard]

It is never a walk in the park persuading a group of people to discard practices considered harmful or retrogressive. 

While they might appear repugnant to some people, certain norms, customs and traditions are cherished by others.  

Without culture, which is transmitted through social learning, a community risks losing its distinct identity. However, as societies evolve, culture can never remain static forever; it is predisposed to change, either abruptly or gradually.

The change can be in form of technological development, innovation, or revolution. And people inherently tend to resist change by reacting to forces seeking to alter the way they socially conduct themselves.

Closer home, the anti-Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) campaign is a perfect example of how communities in Kenya value female circumcision. For a century, the resistance has been stiff and bloody.

Christian missionaries tried to stop the practice in vain. Years back, uncircumcised women could not get a hand in marriage. It was considered taboo to forgo the rite. Elders argued that the practice was not a matter of Christian beliefs but a conflict of social morality.

Class session, Kenya High School, 1966. [File

As Kenyans mark Utamaduni Day, it is worth reflecting on female circumcision and the long journey to outlaw the practice deemed degrading.

By the mid-1920s, the missionaries were preaching against female circumcision, arguing that the tradition was a danger to the health of young girls.

As resistance mounted, the missionaries successfully lobbied through the Local Native Councils (LNCs) to have the ritual banned. This piece of legislation put chiefs sitting in the councils in an awkward position.

The chiefs, who were supposed to adjudicate over this highly valued rite of passage, found themselves caught between a rock and a hard place.

The push-back lasted until 1929 when some senior African Christians caved in to pressure, accepting that female circumcision was an evil practice that needed to be discarded forthwith.

Buoyed by this change of heart, the missionaries then tried to impose laws passed by LNCs to have circumcisers convicted for causing ‘grievous harm’. Criminalising the practice, as the missionaries soon came to realise, was a grave mistake.

There was a mass exodus of Africans from mission churches and schools. Africans started their own churches, which they used to agitate for independence.

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