21 May 2013

FGM in Kenya: What does our new report reveal and how can country profiles help eradicate female genital mutilation?

Blog by Katherine Allen, Research Intern and co-author of FGM in Kenya. 

28 Too Many has released its first country profile report on FGM in Kenya. This information resource is freely available on our website and is intended to provide consolidated and objective information on female genital mutilation (FGM) in Kenya, and on national efforts to eradicate the practice. The purpose of this report is to provide an enhanced understanding of issues relating to FGM, particularly within a wider framework of gender equality and social change. This report acts as a benchmark on the current situation of FGM in Kenya, and we hope it will be a valuable resource for organisations to communicate their initiatives, shape their own policies and programmes, and network with each other; facilitating collaborative strategies for change. Each practicing community in Kenya is unique in its drivers for and customs surrounding FGM. Our report provides a knowledge basis for determining which models of sustainable change will work best for shifting cultural attitudes towards FGM.

We are encouraged that FGM in Kenya has declined around 10% over ten years. Prevalence has fallen from 37.6% (1998) to 32.2% (2003) to 27.1% (2008-9) (DHS). With respect to legislation, FGM is now criminalised in Kenya under the Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act of 2011. At face value, this decline in FGM cases and stricter laws signify that change is possible, and that the Kenyan government and anti-FGM NGOs have achieved some success. However, our report takes a deeper look at the complexities surrounding FGM and the various hurdles in continuing forward with eradication efforts, which require sensitivity to different ethnicities, cultures, religions, and socio-economic circumstances.

Kenya is classed as a group 2 country, where FGM prevalence is intermediate and only certain ethnic groups practise at varying rates (UNICEF, 2005). There are significant regional variations of FGM occurrence, the highest prevalence being over 97% in the north-east region – inhabited by Somalis – and the lowest rate in the west at 0.08% (DHS 2008-09). FGM is more common in rural areas and poorer regions, with a direct correlation to education levels. The most common type of FGM is ‘flesh removed’ which accounts for 83% of women who have been cut. Type III infibulation accounts for 13% and ‘nicked, no flesh removed’ 2% (DHS, 2008-09). Kenyan Somalis, who are often refugees, practice FGM at a rate of 97.7%, with 75% having undergone the most severe Type III (infibulation). The next highest prevalence is found among the Kisii at 96.1% and the Maasai at 73.2%. The Kisii and Maasai practice Type I clitoridectomy and Type II excision respectively. By contrast, the Luhya and Luo have the lowest rates of less than 1%. (DHS 2008-09) FGM is performed mostly on girls aged between 12 and 18. Some studies have shown that girls are now being cut earlier, between the ages of 7 and 12.

In practicing Kenyan groups, FGM is an important part of a ritual or celebration initiating a girl into womanhood. The practice is claimed to preserve a girl’s virginity and protects her from promiscuity and immoral behaviour. For some ethnic groups, an uncut girl is considered to be sexually promiscuous and not marriageable. In addition, FGM is associated with sexuality and the aesthetic appearance of the female body; uncut genitalia can be considered unclean or too masculine. Focusing on two groups, the Massai and Somalis, we can see variations in custom and belief surrounding FGM. The Maasai are semi-nomadic, pastoral people. FGM takes place once a year for all girls between the ages of 12 and 14 (prior to marriage), and the celebration is an important rite of passage into womanhood. Through this ritual, girls gain the community’s respect, ensure their sexual purity and chastity and become fully-fledged community members (Coexist, 2012). Girls who have undergone FGM are also more likely to get a higher bride price. There has been a slight but encouraging reduction in FGM prevalence rates among the Massai, decreasing from 93.4% to 73.2% (DHS, 2003 and 2008-09).

In comparison, Kenyan Somalis practice FGM at an almost universal rate (97.7%) and they often use the most severe form of FGM (Type III) (DHS, 2008-09). Brought from Somalia through migration, FGM is rooted in Somali tradition and is associated with cultural values around virginity, marriageability, and is frequently linked to Islam, though there is in fact no religious requirement for practicing FGM. Somali girls are typically circumcised at a young age, with two thirds being cut between the ages of 3 and 7 (DHS, 2008-09).

A key component of our report is providing an overview of the different strategies currently being used by organisations to combat FGM in Kenya. We highlight these initiatives so that other bodies can consider a range of approaches and make informed decisions on their own programme structures and policies. Due to the diversity in underlying ethnic and cultural traditions and beliefs that underpin FGM, organisations need to tailor anti-FGM initiatives and strategies accordingly. Programmes have worked best in Kenya when they are cooperative and inclusive. Some intervention strategies (used by both international and grassroots groups) include: a health risk approach, education, alternative rites of passage, legal approach, and a human rights approach. Moreover, our report emphases the important roles that education, religion, and the media play in advocating for the elimination of FGM.

There are still many challenges to overcome before FGM is eradicated in Kenya, but with new legislation and active anti-FGM programmes progress continues in a positive direction. As discussed in the report, we provide the following recommendations necessary for positive change in Kenya:

1. Sustainable funding

2. Considering FGM within the framework of the millennium development goals

3. Faciliatating education on health and FGM

4. Improvements in managing health complications of FGM, tackling the medicalisation of FGM, more resources for sexual and reproductive health edication, as well as research and funding on the psychological consequences of FGM

5. Increased advocacy and lobbing

6. Increased law enforcement and equipping of law enforcement agencies

7. Increased use of media

8. Recognising role of faith-based organisations

9. Greater use of partnerships and collaborative research

With over 157 organisations currently campaigning to end FGM in Kenya, it is clear that the drive and commitment exists among Kenyans to end FGM. These groups are however often isolated and uncoordinated, and programmes and results are not always communicated publicly. Our report aims to make their voices heard and together we can coordinate our resources to continue on the road to positive change and the eradication of FGM. For more information on FGM in Kenya please see our full report.

You can donate to support our research and campaign to protect girls and end this practice. Please also follow us on Facebook and Twitter for updates on the global movement to end FGM.