Female Genital Mutilation, Gender-based Violence
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The FGM Conversation has to Change

It’s been roughly 100 days since 2017 began. Reflecting on the past year’s campaigns against FGM and early marriages, it is true that all who are involved have come a long way. There have been moments where the campaign may have faltered and made missteps – but we’ve also seen some significant progress.

However, in the course of writing and campaigning, as well as visiting various communities across the country where FGM is practiced, I can attest that activists are increasingly encountering subtle resistance.

A revisionist movement is slowly but surely pushing back, challenging some of reasons advanced in campaigns against FGM as well as approaches that do not seem not to fit with their local context. As such, the conversation at the global and national level is not making much needed impact at the community level.

How is this possible, given the resources that are being channeled and renewed vigor among activists? To illustrate this, sometime in 2016 during a Rugby 7s event dubbed #EndFGMmaasai in Kajiado, Kenya, a group of elite young men from universities – The Maasai Students Association – revealed to us that they still encourage and uphold the practice of FGM. They stated that they nonetheless encourage girls to continue with school after the practice. Many activists would refute this, as FGM among the Maasai is believed to prepare a woman mentally for marriage; and there is very little chance that the girl will pursue education after the cut.

In Garissa (Northern Kenya), the prevalence stands at 97%. Here the challenge relates to the belief that FGM affects child births. During community conversations, I have heard many women dispute the health effects of the practice, citing that they have actually given birth to many children despite the cut. One woman confessed that she underwent type 3 of FGM (infibulation) and she prides in the birth of her 10 children. According to Kenneth Odary of Research Triangle Africa (RTA), such sentiments, coupled with official statistics that reveal that there is indeed a higher birth rate and population growth among FGM- practicing communities, diminish the credibility of some long held facts on the dangers of FGM.

These are but a few examples of the subtle resistance and revisionist statements that activists grapple with while in the field. Such is the dilemma, which has led to suggestions for a holistic approach – which not only tackles the known health and social-cultural issues, but also frames them within the broader socioeconomic and political context.

For instance, recently there was a voter registration exercise that took place in Kenya and various political factions were competing for votes. Unknown to some of these groups is that only a third of women – who currently comprise over half the population of Kenya – are registered to vote. This is largely as a result of many women lacking the crucial national identity card, as result of being forced into early marriages common with girls who have undergone FGM and having dropped out of school.

According to Kenneth Odary, this implies that in Kenya’s tribal- driven politics, communities practicing FGM are deprived of the critical numbers needed to influence decisions and bargain for power and resources at the national level. Besides, given their low level of education attainment, such women may be unable to countenance the importance of voting as their democratic right enshrined in our constitution even upon attaining the age of maturity.

Politics aside, women’s pursuit of their socio-economic rights is largely hampered as a result of these harmful cultural practices of FGM and early marriages. In Kenya, without a national identity card, a woman can be deprived of the opportunity to access affirmative action funds made available by government.

These examples are a fraction of the realities that women face at the community level that can be generated to re-energize the anti-FGM crusade and make it more holistic. Funding for activities need to strategically shift from arguments about why FGM is wrong to examining the broader socio economic and political impact of this practice.

Cover photo credit: Les Anderson 

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