Kenya committed in 2019 to ending female genital mutilation by this year.
It’s been 11 years since the country outlawed this human rights violation, which has affected around four million women and girls in Kenya. The strides towards an FGM-free country are encouraging, though challenges hover heavily.
Arguments abound that anti-FGM laws discriminate against ‘national heritage’ and adults can consent to the cut. In 2017, Dr Tatu Kamau packaged these strong opinions into a petition with one prayer, legalise FGM, when she challenged the constitutionality of the Prohibition of FGM Act, 2011.
No woman or girl can consciously and freely consent to FGM, three judges hearing the case decided on March 17, 2021, because “no person can license another to perform a crime”. This decision by the court upheld the unconstitutionality of FGM.
The decision also affirmed the state’s commitment to preserve, protect and promote the rights of girls and women through various international and regional treaties. They include the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child. There’s also the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, and the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action.
While the case was underway, the government in 2019 stepped up efforts to stop FGM—for good. It had cultural and religious leaders sign commitments to support the Presidential Costed Action Plan to End FGM in Kenya by 2022. The global target is 2030, per the United Nations pledge.
With Tatu’s petition out of sight, the focus shifted to strengthening policy, communication, advocacy, and evidence generation strategies to keep vulnerable girls and women safe.
Muslims for Human Rights on February 6 joined Kenyans and the world in marking the International Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM. The theme for this year was: ‘Accelerating Investment to End Female Genital Mutilation’. Occurring during a pandemic, the theme was to have state and non-state actors amplify and direct the efforts to eliminate FGM.
Muhuri has documented numerous FGM cases and observed trends over the years, with analysis showing a decline, though cultural barriers remain a threat. In 2019, Muhuri saved three Tana River girls from the cut.
Cultural beliefs, stigma, marriageability, wealth and dowry appear to be fuelling the cut, making Garissa a hotspot. Here, the practice carries a symbolic meaning, which we continue to demystify. For instance, FGM should never hold a social and psychosexual belief that includes maintaining chastity to keep the family honour by controlling a woman’s sexuality. FGM causes a host of serious physiological and psychological health problems.
Many unlawful early marriages, which lead to teenage motherhood, are linked to FGM, Muhuri’s analysis of its geographic scope shows. There are multisectoral undertakings to cut such illegal unions.
However, misinformation, conservatism, illiteracy and poverty have given pro-FGM campaigners ammunition. This has pushed the practice underground to avoid detection, as shared to Muhuri by some community members.
Documented reports indicate that medical personnel in communities where FGM is rampant are helping perpetuate the harmful practice. We need to invest more in a comprehensive training programme on FGM for service providers, religious leaders, youth, community elders and policymakers.
It will make them understand the legal and human rights implications of FGM, their roles in its prevention and how to offer management intervention and support to survivors.
Establishing strong community surveillance mechanisms is crucial in protecting girls and women because this is where harm occurs. Galvanising political action at the grassroots will bolster scrutiny.
The relevant state and non-state actors need to develop targeted messages and consistently disseminate them through local radio stations, community forums, school health talks and career days. These are crucial means to reach far-flung areas disconnected from the capital and major cities where anti-FGM campaigns are conspicuous.
Ending FGM in Kenya will greatly contribute to attaining sustainable development goal 5.3 of eliminating all harmful practices. Specifically, it will be achieving SDG 5 of having gender equality and empowering all women and girls.
Ernest Cornel is a journalist and communications and advocacy officer at Muhuri, while Abdishukri Jelle is Muhuri’s programme officer in Garissa county.