6 May 2011

Shifting culture in Kenya

Amongst a number of Kenyan tribes, FGM is practised for social and religious reasons. The Kenya Demographic of Health Survey shows the overall prevalence of FGM has decreased over 10 years: 38% in 1998; 32% in 2003 and 27% in 2008-9. However, the prevalence is still over a third of 15-49 year olds in Eastern Kenya although 88% of women ‘believe it should end’. The difference is blamed on poor healthcare/reproductive health; low education and poverty/low social welfare. FGM sits in a context where over 50% of women accept men are justified in beating them if they go out without permission; ‘neglect’ the children; argue; burn food or refuse sex. Negotiating against FGM maybe just too hard!

The Maasai have a prevalence of 93%.

An FGM Program Manager in the Rift Valley writes “Our work at the moment is focused on our Maasai girls school where we work with local tribal chiefs who allow us to take some girls into our school for education and board as an alternative to FGM. We also take girls who are at risk of FGM from other communities to prevent it happening. We want to put more emphasis on expanding the amount of girls we can help in the future.”

Also in the Rift Valley in Pokot, midwife Cath Holland witnessed an FGM ceremony over ten years ago, and now campaigns for an annual alternative initiation ceremony. In a recent article in the Guardian, she says “We were inundated with girls who wanted to attend – and many of them had had a tough time persuading their families that it was the better thing to do than FGM. In the end we had around 175, all aged between 14 and 20.” She adds “Pokot is only one area of one country. There here are many, many others where FGM still goes on. We want to replicate this work in other parts of Kenya, and in other parts of Africa. There’s a lot more to be done.”
In another rural region of Kenya, Marijam through Jali Africa tells me “Women are of no value to the community. The girl child education is not valued because girls and women are seen as beasts of burden, a girl is to grow up and get married so there is not need for school”. FGM is done secretly in this area (it’s illegal in Kenya, but untrained women do FGM for a source of income – 300KSH (£2.17) per girl. “The little girls are then married off to old men or any man ready with large herds of cattle in exchange for the girl as a wife”, Marijam continues. “Women are dependent upon their husbands for provision, and must walk long distances for water, despite having one meal day”. Changes could be achieved by teaching in women’s rights; education support; churches promoting good practice and child birth assistance to help birth complications.

A recent study by Feed the Minds undertook research with alternative rites of passage (ARP) where FGM is practised by the Kuria and Kisii communities. ARP works well when FGM is a public celebration or integrated with girls’ empowerment. Instead of being rescued from FGM camps, long term community education and empowerment initiatives are needed for men and community leaders to be engaged with change incorporating ARP instead of FGM. These alternatives are a positive hope for keeping positive elements of community culture (public celebrations) whilst abandoning the harmful practice (FGM).