By Daisy Nandeche Okoti
Published November 9, 2015
“Don’t refer to circumcision of women as female genital mutilation. My grandmother, my mother and I are circumcised and I know many other women who are circumcised and are proud of the practice,” was the response of a visibly irritated panelist in Nairobi on November 5, 2015.
Dr Fuambai Sia Ahmadu from Sierra Leone, who said she wanted to dispel what she termed as myths spread about female circumcision as a means of inhibiting women’s sexual pleasure or contributing to maternal mortality, went on to say, “Female circumcision is a practice which is respected by women who practice it. I flew back to Sierra Leone from USA at the age of 21 to undergo circumcision. No one forced me to do this. Having spent a lot of time in the US, I was enlightened enough. But I wanted to be a part of this process.”
What was happening here?
Dr Ahmadu was speaking during the recording of a new BBC programme that discusses contentious issues around the world. Called BBC Global Questions, the second edition of the programme tackled the question, “What Does Equality Mean for Women in Africa?” and was recorded in Nairobi on November 5, 2015.
BBC’s Zeinab Badawi, who relocated to the United Kingdom from the Sudan in her childhood, moderated the well choreographed, highly interactive debate on empowerment of women in Africa.
The discussion panel comprised Dr Babatunde Osotimehin, Director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and former Nigerian Health Minister; Dr Fuambai Sia Ahmadu, Co-Founder of African Women are Free to Choose (AWA-FC); Louise Mushikiwabo, Rwanda’s Minister for Foreign Affairs & International Cooperation; Junet Mohammed, a Kenyan Opposition Member of Parliament; and Njoki Ndung’u, a Judge of Supreme Court of Kenya.
Believe it or not, Fuambai Sia Ahmadu’s words, almost verbatim, were repeated by a Kenyan woman during the recording of the Kiswahili version of the BBC Global Questions that was moderated by BBC’s Angela Ng’endo: “My grandmother is circumcised. My mother is circumcised. I am circumcised. My daughters will most likely be circumcised,” the woman, from Kajiado on the outskirts of Nairobi, said.
She argued that in as much as people speak ill of the practice, it continues to be a cherished practice in her community.
“My being circumcised did not prevent me from having children or doing any other thing that a non-circumcised woman can do. Female circumcision is our culture and we will uphold it,” said the woman while arguing that female circumcision has come under attack largely from people who do not practice it and hence don’t understand its cultural significance.
“Listening to Fuambai made me realise that I had only gotten one side of the story about female circumcision all my life; that it was a bad practice that curtailed the lives of women,” said Yasmin Ogumbe, a participant in the BBC Global questions.
FGM in Kenya has in the recent past attracted the attention of gender activists who consider it one of the cultural practices that undermine women’s empowerment.
The observation of Ogova Ondego, a cultural practitioner who asked whether it is not time activists changed their strategy against FGM as one cannot legislate against culture, appeared to stir up the room.
Said he, “That Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is not about to die any time soon despite Kenya’s strict law that has led to many being arrested and imprisoned and seen colossal amounts of largely donor money sank into costly public awareness campaigns against FGM is a demonstration that the practice is much more than just an outward act. While Maasai women have demonstrated against Kenya’s Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act of 2010, their male counterparts have told the Government that they will “not stop initiating our girls”. Since no one can legislate against culture, is it time the fight against FGM was changed from a purely punitive legal one to a negotiated cultural approach?”
Indeed, it is mind-boggling why women can continue running towards female circumcision as opposed to running away from it.
So what really is the place of change in cultures such as this? Should western values (also known as globalisation) be adopted wholesale in the process of liberating the African woman? Perhaps one of the dispensations of justice and liberation should be a provision for women to have the freedom to choose what cultures they want to be part of in order for them to fell fulfilled.
Other concerns that were raised during the forum that shall be broadcast on TV, Radio and Online from November 13, 2015 was the under-representation of women in public office across Africa and the point of meeting between the traditional female roles and the new ones presented by empowerment.
Hafsa Mossi, the chairperson of the Women Caucus in the East African Legislative Assembly, argued that in as much as women are empowered, there is need to recognise that women and men have their different roles to play in this life and there can only be a balance when these realities are recognised.
“A woman has her own roles to play. Similarly, a man has his own roles to play,” said Mossi, from Burundi
While steps have been made to eradicate discrimination against women and the world is at a better place today than it was ten years ago in terms of women access to education, healthcare and there are deliberate legislation to help pull women up, Mossi is of the opinion that women would do well to retain their traditional roles for there to be social stability.
Women in leadership, especially political leadership also continues to be an issue of concern as very few women get to the top through the elective positions.
Rwanda’s High Commissioner to Kenya, James Kimonyo said that the reason why Rwanda continues to stand out as a country where women have risen in political leadership to stand at 64% in the national parliament can be attributed to the fact that women took up the opportunities that they were given at first and they were able to illustrate their capacity for public office and that is the reason why the masses in Rwanda have trust in women’s ability to take leadership positions.
These sentiments by Kimonyo who spoke on the Kiswahili programme, had been echoed a while earlier on the English programme by Mushikiwabo. She had said that as much as women get the opportunities to get into political power, it is how they deliver service that will give other women the chance of getting into political office.
Saying a woman in leadership has to be twice as good as a man to be taken seriously, Mushikiwabo opined, “Women in public leadership have to grow a thick skin.”
“In Rwanda, rules were put in place to ensure that there was change in leadership structures and that the conditions were favourable for women but what really worked was the women took up these positions and showed that they were as able as their male counterparts to run office,” said Kimonyo.
While acknowledging that one of the challenges that the society has put up against women in power is comparing them to men, Kimonyo said the fact of the matter is that society uses men as the standard and that as society works towards changing the perception for a fairer world, women have to tough it out.