On November 25th last year, I first came across the International Day of Elimination of Violence Against Women and on Feb 6th I became aware of another event, the International Day of Zero Tolerance against Female Genital Mutilation. That whole week I was inundated with emails from all the international organisations I am subscribed to, asking me to sign this petition, write this story and watch that short video. It was overwhelming to see the amount of stories that were out there, women crying for help, girls begging to be given a better future. I had watched a documentary on female genital mutilation a couple of years before but sometimes you have to consider that channels edit videos according to whatever message they want to promote. And as usual, it was always a non-African person doing the story-telling. I wanted for once to hear the story from an African woman’s perspective. And I got my miracle when a friend and former colleague told me she was knee-deep in FGM in Kenya.

I caught up with Grace Uwizeye, an FGM Program Officer for Equality Now to give us a clue about what is happening in Kenya and in Africa as a whole, to tell us what we can do to join this great effort, and of course whether we can be optimistic about the future.

WARNING: Some of the images you will see in this post are disturbing!!!

Can you explain to us what Female Genital Mutilation – commonly known as FGM – is exactly and why it has suddenly gained a lot of attention internationally?

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) can be described as procedures that intentionally alter or cause harm to the female genital organs for non-medical purposes. There are various types of practices that are considered to be FGM and these are:

  1. Clitoridectomy: partial or total removal of the clitoris (a small, sensitive and erectile part of the female genitals) and, in very rare cases, only the prepuce (the fold of skin surrounding the clitoris).
  2. Excision: partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora, with or without excision of the labia majora (the labia are “the lips” that surround the vagina).
  3. Infibulation: narrowing of the vaginal opening through the creation of a covering seal. The seal is formed by cutting and repositioning the inner, or outer, labia, with or without removal of the clitoris.
  4. Other: all other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes, e.g. pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterizing the genital area.

FGM is not a new practice; it has been going on centuries. FGM is practiced in western, eastern, and north-eastern regions of Africa (28 African countries), in some countries in Asia and the Middle East.

The reason for its international recognition is due to various factors. One of the key factors would be the increase in the number of international women’s rights organizations. The fact that these organizations are international is important because they not only deal with issues that are close to them but all the practices that affect women on a global level. This means that issues such as FGM are aired in an international forum. Closely related to the previous point would be the various conventions and protocols adapted from international and regional meetings that deal with women’s rights. FGM is a violation of women’s rights and as such it is condemned by these documents. These documents therefore highlight to the international and regional community the danger posed by the practise of FGM. Finally, one can say that the media plays a major role in informing and educating the international and regional community on the practice and effects of FGM in several parts of the world.

How would you characterize the issue of FGM today in Kenya where you work?

In the Kenyan community FGM can be compared to the elephant in the room everyone consciously ignores. This is because most people know that FGM is a social ill that affects everyone in the community. It can also be compared to a black spot because it is capable of and has taken lives and will continue to take lives if the necessary precautions are not taken. Black spots are not permanent and various safeguards can be taken to avoid the accidents that occur in that particular area. The same goes for FGM in that with proper legislation, implementation and education, the scourge can be avoided as a whole. But with all this knowledge, most people choose to ignore it and treat it like something that does not affect them.

What is the main argument with what concerns FGM in Kenya? I have heard that there is a lot of conflict between religion and culture. Tell us more.

The persistent argument in most Kenyan communities with regards to FGM varies from between culture and religion. The Somali community regard FGM a religious requirement (Islam) while other communities see FGM as culture. In

communities where it is a tradition, girls and women who do not undergo FGM are stigmatized and discriminated against for non-compliance with traditional norms.

FGM is considered a prerequisite for marriage in some societies that practice it. The ‘bride price’ (paid either in cash or in kind) is part of the marriage transaction in African societies and is generally paid by the groom’s family to the family of the bride. This may not be paid if the bride has not undergone FGM. Moreover, family ‘honour’ is considered tainted if the bride has not undergone FGM.

In communities that believe in ancestral worship, women are instilled with a fear of the unknown through curses and the evocation of ancestral wrath. Unexcised women are considered physically dirty and may be barred from such daily activities as cooking. They are considered religiously ‘impure’ and may not be allowed to undertake certain religious functions. In some communities, unexcised women are considered children and they are banned from key social functions and deprived access to resources.

Another reason FGM is sustained is because it provides economic incentives for the practitioners who perform the mutilations, both in the traditional and modern sectors. In some FGM-practising communities, traditional practitioners are given an elevated status, wield considerable power and may resist FGM being stopped.

Girls who undergo FGM are also provided with rewards, including public recognition and celebrations, gifts, the potential for marriage, respect and the ability to participate in social functions as adult women. The rewards may motivate some girls to look forward to undergoing FGM.

From your experience, who is resisting change the most: men or women?

Most people are quick to point a finger towards women, because it is the women who go through FGM and it is also women who carry out the various procedures creating the assumption that they have all the power. Unfortunately it forms part of a complex socio-cultural arrangement of female subjugation in a patriarchal society. Women are not empowered to come together and stand up against the practice. Both women and men still resist change that is why most activists use a multiple strategies that target both women and men and the whole community.

What would you say to the person who says that no one should interfere in a community’s traditional/cultural practices?

Culture is important and it defines us and gives us our heritage. These cultural/traditional practices are embodied in customary law. But culture that brings harm to more than half of the citizen of Kenya should be done away with. There are many cultures that are positive towards the development of communities which we must keep and encourage the communities to maintain. However we must also examine our culture and see the pros and cons of keeping a culture such as FGM not only to women and girls but the community as a whole.

What is the situation in Africa right now?

FGM is still widely practiced in over 28 African countries. The practice is derived from varied and complex belief systems and rituals surrounding women’s fertility and control of their sexuality in traditional male-dominated societies. The reasons given by communities that practice FGM vary widely but a common reason given for the practice is that it reduces the sexual desire of girls and women, promotes virginity and chastity, maintains fidelity among married women, as well as hygienic and aesthetic reasons. In some practicing groups, FGM is central to girls’ rites of passage into adulthood and it is an integral part of society’s definition of womanhood.

Does Africa recognize this as a problem that needs serious attention?

Yes. This is evidenced by the signing and ratification of the Protocol of African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa by most of the member states. Article 5 of this protocol expressly calls upon state parties to prohibit FGM through national legislation and education. It also requires states to ensure girls are prevented from undergoing the practice and perpetrators to be arrested and persecuted.  Over 21 out of 28 countries have passed laws banning the practice but the cases of girls being subjected to the practise are high and few cases are reported to the police/courts. Most of the factors that maintain the cultures are that:

  • most African countries still hold on to their staunch traditional beliefs and continue with the practice in secret;
  • here is a lack of knowledge by the girls/women on the harms caused by FGM;
  • community members, especially women do not know any other way;
  • there are inadequate mechanisms in place to fight FGM and even though there is legislation against it, it cannot be effectively implemented;
  • there is a lack of political will from the African governments.

How can we assist our fellow women in this fight for change?

Knowledge is power. This saying holds so much weight when it comes to the fight against FGM. Not everyone has the resources to build rescue centres and take other drastic measures but it does not take much to sit down with women and educated them on the dangers of FGM. Holding the African governments accountable to ensure that they implement all provisions within the conventions and treaties ratified which address FGM.

How do you see the future?

I am optimistic about a future with no FGM. As a result of the campaign, the practice of FGM is declining in some countries. With the recent UN resolution worldwide ban on FGM, a campaign that was initiated and spearheaded by African governments. With strong enforcement mechanisms accompanied with political will and education programmes, FGM can be eliminated within a generation.  If anti-FGM campaigns remain persistent and positive action is taken, then we can look forward to an FGM-free world.

We are honoured to have had the chance to talk to you about this elephant in the room few African women want to talk about. I agree with you that indeed culture and tradition, and even religion gives us an identity and a heritage but it does not mean we cannot revise some of these practices especially when they harm young girls, and stop them from reaching their full potential. We are in an era where African women are highly educated; we have some great women like Ellen Johnson Sirleaf leading African nations. We have all the tools in front of us to use so there is no excuse, we must fight for change, and we must fight for a better future for our girls.

If you want to get involved in the FGM Campaign or see what else this organisation does to fight for women’s rights everywhere please consult the Equality Now website.

We welcome your comments and thoughts about FGM below this post.