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The changing face of Female Genital Mutilation in Kenya

I called her today, the phone rang twice and she picked it up the third time. Like always the conversation started with: “How are you?” The 44-year-old calmly answered my call. “I am well, just calling to say hi,” I reply and smile at how our conversation is predictable, but not this time. “Things are getting worse here, you would think it’s the new fashion trend, come to Kuria and see it for yourself.” She sounds worried for the first time. “I told you and I can assure you this culture is here to stay,” she firmly tells me, with a resounding finality in her voice.

There is something about her voice – maybe it is the eloquence, the polished English, maybe it’s because she has been an English teacher for 2 decades. I have her mobile phone number and her real name, I know her matrimonial home and the number of children she has. I also know that she forced her only daughter to undergo Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). Yet she is a head teacher in a school in Kuria East, a district on the Kenya – Tanzania border.

I have never understood why she supports a cruel cut, which she says was too painful to be put into words. She is a victim too - she was cut as a young girl.

Children in class in one of the schools in Kuria on the Kenyan-Tanzanian border where FGM is rampant. Picture: Judy Kosgei
Children in class in one of the schools in Kuria on the Kenyan-Tanzanian border where FGM is rampant. Picture: Judy Kosgei

Our agreement in May when we first met while filming for my television report, was she remains anonymous to the “judgemental Kenyan public” as she bluntly refers to the anti-FGM campaigners. So I will call her ‘Mary’ a name I have called her in my previous publications and conversations.

As a features reporter at Citizen TV, Kenya, with an interest in issues affecting girls and women, I have done over 10 stories on FGM including one for an Australian online magazine, Ann Summers Reports. But it’s while working on the series “The Elite Also Cut” (Part 1, Part 2) and spending a week in Kuria, that it dawned on me that FGM had so many faces, so many colours. And like a chameleon FGM can camouflage.

On a previous occasion Mary had told me how she colluded with a nurse, a government employee, to perform FGM on her daughter. “This particular nurse used a razor blade to cut, we were among those who did not want to go to the traditional woman, so we paid the nurse to cut that part. When you are living with your people you have to preserve that culture,” she said.

Mary was confirming what she told me then - that even with tougher laws, a miracle is needed to stop the vice in Kuria. “My neighbour who has 2 children has decided she wants to be cut, she is in seclusion as we talk, she is fed up with the ridicule, can you imagine that?”

I try to imagine the magnitude and how rooted FGM is. A journalist based in the northern part of Kenya has had all his daughters cut despite the fact that he has taken pictures of the cruelty of FGM and written moving stories on the same. His first and second wife has gone through the practice, one was cut during child birth. He will not stop taking pictures, he will not stop writing stories on FGM but he is a great supporter of what he calls their culture.

I think about the girls who want the cut so bad, girls pushed to the edge of the knife by peer pressure, girls too young who want to fit in with their age group and teenagers who lack role models.

Rose Danita Mwita is a teacher in Kuria who has gone against the tide. Being the head mistress at St. Cecilia Kegonga Girls primary school, she tries to change the belief some teachers have. “These teachers take their girls for circumcision,” she told me. “They drive big cars, some of them are daughters of teachers, chiefs, doctors, policemen and they are not discouraged and the government does nothing about it.”

Professionals like Mary and the nurse who carried out the outlawed vice know too well about the prohibition of the Female Genital Mutilation Act, 2011 which has tough penalties including life imprisonment on FGM offences.

As I chat to Mary I think back to the Pokot women I met back in April 2012 in Tangulbei who made me laugh for 90 minutes. The sight of elderly women on a football pitch, crowding around one ball is priceless. But the sight of women who remove their beads, bare their feet and use their legs to kick out female genital mutilation in their community is encouraging. A primary school has been turned to a rescue center with the support of these women.

According to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), more than 125 million girls and women alive today have under gone some form of female genital mutilation in 29 countries in Africa and the Middle East. In Kenya FGM prevalence stands at 27% for women aged between 15-49.

I remind Mary of this, as we wind up our long chat, full of flash backs, reflections and a bit of laughter. I tell her, “I hope your daughter will not inflict the same pain to your future grandchild,” she chuckles, and replies “Let’s wait and see”.

What if Mary’s daughter does not cut her daughter? When the cycle is broken once, it will be broken forever.

Please note, this is a guest blog. Views expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of DFID or have the support of the British government.

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  1. Comment by Nyagoha Kaluli posted on

    I leaved in Kuria Kehancha to be precise. I know of other tribes who migrated into Kuria and have embraced the practise. During December holidays in the 90s girls will wear hats knitten from thread and lots of safety pins pinned on the hats. The pins were not for any safety reasons but for people to pin money on it. Money was pinned on the head of circumcised girl and this was sign that the girl had gone through rite of passage. I at 13 years from community that no such practice exists felt pity on the girls as some of them bled to death, others walked in pain, I sometimes crinche when I remember. .No single day did I look forward to Christmas it meant seeing girls my age in pain and more more pain at hospital where my mother a Nurse worked thanks to being housed on staff quarters. It's a vice still practised today in secrets. Judy is a prolific reporter thanks for highlighting this for us.

  2. Comment by Kaleo Isaac Anselmo posted on

    I was in a place called Mashangwa past Ntimaru in Kuria near Kenya/Tanzania border and I was surprised at how rampant the practice of cutting girls is still rampant despite the laws outlawing it and the much awareness which has been created over time to discourage the custom. The type of FGM practised I believe is Type 2 which leaves the women without sex drive and probable complications during child birth. I heard that many girls have died while undergoing FGM and their bodies are thrown in a certain forest and that they are not buried like other deceased persons. The girls are forced to go for the cut cause no man from the Kuria community is ready to marry a "machicha" girl. Many girls take themselves for the cut despite the discouragements from some of their parents and the organizations working in that area. It is shocking because even the christians in that area support the practice and when it is the season for circumcision, all of them leave the churches to take part in the barbaric custom. In a certain school ran by an NGO, I heard that all the girls above 13 years of age ran away from school to be circumcised to the disappointment of their teachers who had repeatedly discouraged them from going for the cut. I noticed that FGM in Kuria is done solely for men for their selfish sexual desires. The men are irresponsible as majority are alcoholics and so they rest assured that their wives would never cheat on them as they do not have any sexual drive. The men are strong defenders of the custom and the women are ready to follow them without any question. They even go to a greater extend of using witchcraft to lure girls to circumcision. I heard that human sacrifices are made periodically to continue strengthening their customs and people are lured from other communities by the use of evil powers who bring themselves to the village where they're captured and sacrificed. FGM in Kuria land is not ending soon unless the people's mentality is completely changed as a lot still happens secretly and the government officials hear no word about it. Another shocking thing is that even some government officials in that land like chiefs support the vice and are not ready to fight it or help the government fight it. They know of the cases where girls are forced to be cut but choose to take no action against the parents or the people who force them to go for the cut. I met a young girl who was supposed to have been circumcised last year but she boldly refused and she is being hosted by a particular church. The next circumcision season should be next year during the month of September as the season is usually after every two years. I fear for that girl as I heard from some men that they have the plans to ensure that she gets circumcised and then immediately get married to one of them as a 2nd, 3rd, 4th et al wife. I keep on praying for her that she will be able to avoid the cut and instead pursue her dream in education.