The peril that is FGM

22 Nov

By Wanjala Wafula

I recently got an invitation to attend what my maternal cousins residing on the adulating Mt Elgon District in Kenya called the “crossover” ceremony for three girls who I later learned were hardly eleven years old. In a nutshell, I was being invited to attend a ceremony where three little girls were

going to undergo female genital mutilation. The person who delivered the message to me had firm instructions to deliver. He insisted that the community had chosen me to foot the costs of a tradition he claimed was appeasing to the ancestors and good for my little relatives I have never met. I turned down the invitation and this is my message to my cousins.

Experts around the world continue to affirm that female genital mutilation has no known health benefits yet the practice is deeply entrenched in many communities in Africa. FGM is a harmful and destructive practice that violates girls’ and women’s human rights, denying them their physical and mental integrity, their right to freedom from violence and discrimination and, in the most extreme cases, their lives. The practice reflects deep-rooted inequality between the sexes, and constitutes an extreme form of discrimination against girls and women.

It represents society’s control over girls and women. It perpetuates normative gender roles that are unequal and harm girls and women. It violates the rights to health, security and physical integrity of the person, the right to be free from torture and cruelty, inhuman or degrading treatment, and the right to life when the procedure results in death, as often is the case in communities that still practice it.

The motives and justifications for the continued practice of FGM among many communities are ludicrous and plainly antiquated. They  include; wishes of ancestors, protects moral behavior of women in society, assures faithfulness of women to their husbands, acceptance into adult society, control of women’s sexuality, increases fertility, gender identity, clitoris is a dangerous organ and must be cut, clitoris will damage husband’s organ, calms girls, cleanliness, pleases men, prevents infants and maternal mortality, religious requirement, preserves virginity, controls waywardness of girls, prevents pre-marital sex and adultery

My fifteen years experience in working to eliminate all forms of gender based violence against women, girls and other minority groups has enabled us to ascertain that female genital mutilation is a social convention governed by rewards and punishments which are a powerful force for continuing the practice. In view of this conventional nature of female genital mutilation, it is difficult for families to abandon the practice without support from the wider community, specifically men and boys.

While laws at the national level provide a legal platform for activities aimed at eliminating FGM and act as state-sanctioned rejections of the practice, they have not been able to change deeply-entrenched cultural practices, primarily because of the difficulty of large-scale enforcement. Irrespective of the fact that the practice has been outlawed in Kenya, it persists in secrecy with 91% of the respondents in a recently carried out Coexist Initiative FGM community assessment affirming that they support the practice. We sadly note that, because the practice is so prevalent, laws criminalizing FGM in Kenya will not end the practice. Instead, the practice has been driven underground, encouraging families to discreetly force their daughters to undergo the practice.

The focus is to bolster the role of Men and Boys in the Eradication of FGM by encouraging them to leverage social dynamics towards the abandonment of the practice among the numerous communities that still practice it. I propose that the main strategic approach is to gain the support of initial core groups which in this case are the men, elders and boys, for its only them who are able to decide to abandon FGM.

The immediate and long-term effects of the FGM ritual perpetrated on girls are well before puberty and yet they have devastating consequences to their health and well being to an extent that they all but destroy the quality of live. Female genital mutilation is often times performed by women on other women and young girls yet the men who are the driving force and proponents of the vice are far removed from the act itself.  Female genital mutilation is part of a continuum of female body and sexuality control. It’s a practice carried out by women for the benefit of men and for the validation of the invisible hand of patriarchy.

The privileging of males that go with patriarchal systems make female genital mutilation a requirement for women’s survival not a choice and this I resolutely refuse. The practice of female genital mutilation has been marginalized as a cultural issue yet it remains one of the worst violations of human rights for women and girls among communities that still practice it. It is a manifestation of unequal relations between women and men with roots in deeply entrenched social, economic and political conventions. I have always insisted that the fundamental role of men cannot be over emphasized in efforts to eradicate FGM. In a nutshell, FGM is universally considered a practice resulting from patriarchal societies and the subsequent powerlessness of women and girls. It is considered to be rooted in male dominated societies that have attempted to subjugate women and repress their sexuality.

Experts agree that girls are subjected to FGM in order to fit into the predetermined gender power balance equation dominated by negative masculinity and sustained by patriarchy. I insist that FGM is majorly driven by the girl’s suitability for marriage and men’s support is vital if the vice has to be eradicated. There needs to emerge a purposeful drive towards a transformation in attitudes among men and boys who are the custodians of outdated cultural practices. According to the Kenya Demographic and Heath Survey 2010, FGM prevalence among the Maasai stood at 93%. 78% of Maasai women interviewed by the Coexist initiative in June 2011 believe that their daughters should be circumcised for men to accept them for marriage. On the other hand 89% of men dreaded the stigma of marrying uncircumcised girls and therefore reinforce the need to have them cut.

I affirm that men and boys play a leading role in the sustenance of pervasive and destructive cultural practices and customs including the dehumanizing female genital mutilation. The walls of the silence that have fortified FGM from public discourse must be shattered though educational programs tailor made to expose the adverse side of FGM. I propose grassroots initiatives that are participatory in nature and utilize the expertise and tools that are respected by the target communities. Efforts to eradicate FGM must endeavor to spur change through a culturally sensitive, human rights-based approach that promotes collective abandonment of the practice.

For those who are to listen, Let us mobilize and build the capacities and competencies of men, boys and communities towards the eradication of female genital mutilation in Kenya and indeed Africa.

The writer is a Founder and CEO of The Coexist Initiative, a not for profit synergy of men and boys organizations committed to eliminating all forms of sexual/gender based violence and enhancing HIV prevention in Kenya. Visit:  Facebook: wanjala Wafula Skype: coexistinitiative: Tel: +254-712653322



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