Kenya is a diverse country with over forty ethnic groups. These groups are predominantly categorized within the Bantus, Nilotes, and Cushites populations in Africa, which clearly shows that the country experiences multi-cultural practices which may differ from one ethnic group to the other. In the midst of all these differences in the way of living, there have also been some notable similarities in how these communities live. To understand this better, it’s important to note Kenya’s geographic placement: as one of the countries in the Great Lakes region of East Africa, Kenya is considered a gateway to Africa to a number of countries across the Indian Ocean, and some of its communities reflect cultural influence borrowed from Asia and the Middle East. The integration and interactions of people have brought about beautiful practices that uniquely define Kenya, yet still there are practices that are harmful and have no place in the modern world. Some of these practices include early child marriage and Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). In many communities in Kenya, the latter is undertaken as preparation to the former, and it is hard to draw a line between the two practices – both of which violate the body and the rights of the child.

Sadly, maternal mortality remains to be one of the leading causes of death for women in Kenya between the ages of 15 and 19. These are young adolescent girls, many of whom experience birth-related complications as a direct result of FGM and early child marriages. As such, it is only logical that if we want to end maternal mortality, we need to get down to the root causes of all these issues and address them from the grassroots community level, where these violations take place.

The Kenya Demographic Health Survey of 2014 records that 2 out of 10 girls and women aged 15-49 years in Kenya have undergone FGM. According to the United Nations Population Fund, 38 communities out of the 43 in Kenya practice FGM to this day - which is shocking for a country that has strong legislation against abetting, procuring, and committing the practice. The question we must then ask is: “Why are communities across Kenya still practicing FGM in secrecy despite it being illegal?”

Unfortunately, FGM continues to be a social norm to many of the communities that practice it in Kenya. Moisalel* is a Maasai woman who has undergone FGM herself. Speaking in a low voice, Moisalel explains to me that for any woman to be accepted within the social group of women around the same age, it is obligatory to undergo FGM – not explicitly, but with enough strength that to refuse is inconceivable to most women. She explains that a woman who hasn’t undergone FGM is viewed as an outcast, snubbed by her peers. No one will eat food prepared by her. No visitor will ever step into her homestead. To avoid this social alienation, she must decide an unbearable ultimatum: her bodily autonomy, or her community.

For me to fully understand why communities still practice FGM in Kenya, I spoke to Chebii*, a young girl from the Pokot community in Kenya. Chebii told me that she is under a lot of pressure from her mother to undergo FGM.

“She says I will not find a husband or my dowry will be low if I do not take the cut,” she explains, using the colloquial term for the practice. After all, in these communities, the practice is not seen as a form of mutilation, but as a mere medical procedure – a snip, a cut, a so-called ‘superfluous’ sexual organ plucked from the body like a weed.

“What is stopping you from complying with your mother?” I asked. She explained to me, cheeks pinking at the sensitivity of the subject, that she’d been taught in her health classes at school that FGM is bad for female reproductive health. At this point, she starts to cry. I falter, wondering if I should end the interview, before she starts to talk again.

"I’m sorry,” she says, a tear webbing between her lower lashes, stubbornly refusing to fall, “I miss her.”

“Who?”

“Chepkemoi*, my friend. She had the cut, but the bleeding didn’t stop. She died just after the ceremony was done.”

I let the silence linger. It didn’t feel proper to pry, but I desperately wanted to know: what did the community say about Chepkemoi’s case? Eventually, the girl’s tears subsided to sniffles, and then she seemed more or less herself again - subdued, tear-stained cheeks, but calm. Slowly, with plenty of pauses to allow her to stop me if further questions were too upsetting, I finally asked.

“They say it’s bad luck,” she said, jaw clenching involuntarily, “Because her mother comes from a different community, one that does not have the practice. They say Chepkemoi died because her mother was not cut.”

I left our interview with a creeping nausea in my stomach, wondering how so many people could collectively blame everything except for the razor blade and the hand who held it for a little girl’s death.

It was not bad luck that was to blame, but bad practices. And yet, for those determined to continue this harmful traditional practice, such mental manipulation was not only acceptable, but logical.

In these communities, stories are told often about women who have died while giving birth, yet no one seems to see the obvious connection to FGM. Hospitals show records of women with fistula, yet no one sees the connection to FGM. When a woman’s body is sewn shut or cut or otherwise mutilated, the seams and the scars do not magically disappear. And yet when these injuries inhibit safe birth – or, even in safe and satisfying sexual practices - nobody seems to comprehend the limitations of human anatomy.

Whilst Kenyan anti-FGM activists have worked hard alongside the law, stories such as these make it clear that community perceptions must be changed to ensure an erasure of FGM so that no more lives are lost unnecessarily. There is need to structure messages for the community that will demystify all myths around FGM, so that communities in Kenya can truly understand that these harmful practices not only violate the human rights for young girls and women, but reflect poorly on those who encourage its pervasiveness. Culturally-appropriate tools should be developed to help these messages gain traction within the community until it is seen as infallible truth, and not a starting point for negotiated debate. We should engage thought leaders and respected community members to speak loudly and openly against FGM to create social change and impact. Young people should be aware of their rights, unafraid of the truth, and use their considerable vigor and sense of justice to to call upon policy makers to move beyond anti-FGM law in Kenya, and towards meaningful cultural change - not just in Kenya, but as a role model for so many other countries in Africa.

*names of the women have been changed for the purposes of privacy and confidentiality.

 

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