The 6th of February, was the annual International Day for Zero Tolerance of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). To mark this day, Kenya YMCA, Kenya YWCA, Organisation for African Youth, Family Health Options Kenya and Africa Alliance of YMCAs joined hands to stand up against FGM. The YMCA anti-FGM campaign took place on Saturday 10th of February at YMCA Meru with a panel discussion, themed What can I do to stand up against FGM, under the twitter handle #IStandAgainstFGM. The panel consisted of two men and two women with different areas of expertise related to women’s sexual reproductive health and rights. Around 100 young people from across Meru participated in the event to learn about and be part of the awareness-building on FGM. The youth participants played an active part in the discussions around what FGM entails, and which measurement can be done to end the practice.
Master of Ceremonies, Asman Salim from YMCA South C kicked-off the discussion by inviting Margaret Ikiara, Executive Director at CIFORD (Community initiative for rural development) to explain the four major types of FGM. She explained how these different types of “cutting” are interlinked with tradition and culture varying between ethnicities and regions. Further, she explained how FGM is widespread in areas around Meru, such as in Igembe North. In Meru County, FGM is traditionally seen as a rite of passage that marks the transition from childhood to womanhood. FGM is practiced among others by the Kisii, Embu, Samburu, Maasai, Meru ethnic groups, as well as rooted within the Somali culture.
Sammy Wachieni explained the consequences of FGM, highlighting that FGM has no medical benefits. The claim is supported by several medical research, for instance by the World Health Organisation. On the contrary, the girls subjected to FGM can experience life altering physical and psychological complications. Medical complications can include severe pain and bleeding, painful urination and menstruation, loss of libido, development of cysts and complications during childbirth that can result in death. Psychological problems can be low-self-esteem, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and risk of self-harm. During the procedure anaesthetics and antiseptics are not generally used and pastes containing herbs or ashes are often used on the wound to stop bleeding.
FGM is deeply cultural and traditional rooted, and many women affected by FGM come from rural areas with limited access to sexual and reproductive health education. There are many myths and wrongful information about FGM. Particularly myths related to hygiene and anaesthetics have been passed down through generations without being questioned, and are subsequently held on to with tenacity. In many areas including Kenya, FGM is promoted as a rite of passage. In areas where infant mortality is high and fertility important, FGM is seen as a prerequisite for the cleanliness of a woman and the good health of her baby, this assumption has been debunked. Another FGM myth is that uncircumcised women cannot conceive, Wachieni explained.
Liz Wambui, matron for the National library services youth group, shared her opinion on the practice focusing on the social context. She explained how FGM like other social behaviour derives from varied and complex systems. The rationalisation for FGM include the belief that it is a “good” and “healthy” tradition, and often argued that is sanctioned by Christianity and Islam. None of these religions impose the practice of FGM, there is no specific in the Bible or the Quran, which allows mutilation of women. She further shared a personal story on her experience with FGM:
“I grew up in Nairobi as a child and usually visited my grandmother during the holiday in December. My grandmother lived in an area outside of Nairobi, which have the FGM tradition. I remember that my mother used to hide me away or leave earlier back to Nairobi, when the FGM topic came up, and it was asked when I should be cut. I am so grateful for my mother who protected me, as well stood up against her own mother and the community to make sure I was safe and did not become a subject to this harmful practice”.
The fourth panellists, Muthomi Mugiira Jr. lawyer working on gender issues explained why FGM is still being practiced in Kenya, despite the legislation the prohibits it. Since the anti-FGM law was implemented in 2011, no one has been sentenced or prosecuted. There are several reasons behind this, he explained, “in many communities FGM is seen as an important part of the cultural identity and is widely supported”. Another reason is the stigma around FGM, families who wish to take distance from the practice, might experience lack of support from the community. A third reason is that the people don’t know the law, and the police cannot always be trusted to help, if a girl wishes to report a FGM incident.
After the discussion the panellists together with the participants were invited to reflect on how we can contribute to end FGM. It was agreed that we have to continue to educate the communities which practice FGM, and create awareness on the severe consequences the practice has on girls and women. Further, boys and men have to play a key role in anti-FGM campaigns, as FGM also is patriarchal embedded. Women rights are human rights. We need to create safe spaces which trigger people’s mind-set to reflect upon the negative consequences of FGM. Let us join hands and stop the cut.
The event ended with various performance from the youth, including boys showing self-defence, and a girl group performing a song and a dance for the occasion.
By Andrea Furuli