By Japheth Ogila and Steve Biko Abuya
Published August 2, 2014
Clad in their colourful blue and red shuka wrappers and beaded dangling necklaces, women armed with sticks and other weapons march to a public meeting in Kajiado on the outskirts of the Kenyan commercial and political capital, Nairobi, on this early June morning. Today, all work has been suspended as the community must deliberate on a three-year law that prohibits initiation of women into adulthood via circumcision and thus interferes with their traditions and customs. That they are armed is an indication of their determination to have their way and no government can stop them.
But hey; what’s happening here? How can the very women the government is trying to save from what it refers to as female genital mutilation (FGM) be the ones fighting back to retain this socio-cultural practice? Despite the 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 in Kenya, the practice is not about to die out. Not while its adherents are still alive. And so the women drawn from all the Maasai clans are here to defend their right to a cherished cultural practice against perceived government interference through the Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act (No. 32 of 2011). The women insist stopping FGM would upset their ancestors and bring calamity to the community.
Not only do the women threaten to stage their demonstration in Nairobi but they also vow to deny conjugal rights to their men if they do not support their campaign.
Esther Shepashina, one of the leaders of the group, demands that the Kenyan government legalise female circumcision. It is only slaves, she says quoting the Kiswahili adage “Muacha mila ni mtumwa,” that abandon their traditions. And the Maasai are no slaves. Any uncircumcised woman is unclean and unfit for marriage and child-bearing, she tells the media.
And as this pressure builds up, Kenya’s Director of Public Prosecution, Keriako Tobiko, speaks tough but without taking any action against these women who are clearly in breach of the Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act that states, in part, that”A person commits an offence if the person, being aware that an offence of female genital mutilation has been, is in the process of being, or intends to be, committed, fails to report accordingly to a law enforcement officerâ€ and â€œAny person who uses derogatory or abusive language that is intended to ridicule, embarrass or otherwise harm a woman for having not undergone female genital mutilation, or a man for marrying or otherwise supporting a woman who has not undergone female genital mutilation, commits an offence and shall be liable, upon conviction, to imprisonment for a term not less than six months, or to a fine of not less than fifty thousand shillings, or both.”
Tobiko, who also hails from the Maasai community that is demanding non-intereference in its customs, insists that his office will deal firmly with the perpetrators of the practice: “For as long as that legislation is there I will enforce it.”
Female circumcision, known as Female Genital Mutilation among its opponents, is a practice where females have parts of their genitalia cut or altered for socio-cultural reasons.
Although the Maasai have taken centre stage in the call for legalisation of female circumcision, many more communities in Kenya–Kisii, Somali, Meru, Kuria, Samburu, Rendile, Kikuyu and Embu–practise this rite of passage.
The cut is aimed at preserving the virginity of a girl till marriage besides limiting her sexual desires once married.
The Samburu, like their Maasai cousins, consider an uncircumcised girl as being unclean, promiscuous, immature and not fit for marriage.
Among the Somali, a prospective husband’s family has the right to inspect a potential bride’s body prior to marriage and mothers have to regularly check their infibulated daughters to ensure they are properly ‘closed’.
As the government and other stakeholders wage war against FGM through media campaigns and legislation, a study by UNICEF reveals that more than 30 million girls worldwide are at risk of being subjected to the cut over the next decade.
A survey by an anti-FGM organisation in Kenya known as Jebii Kilimo Foundation shows that one out of three women between the ages of 15 and 49 in Eastern and northern Rift Valley provinces of Kenya have been subjected to the cut.
Opponents of FGM cite maternal health complications as the major shortcoming of undergoing the ‘cut’. For instance, Advocates for Youth of USA contend that FGM comes with excessive bleeding, psychological trauma, blood infections, sickness or death, deprived sexual pleasure and pain during urination.
But this does little to deter proponents of the practice who mark it with celebration as portrayed in THE CUT, a 42-minute documentary about female circumcision among the Kuria community. Directed by Beryl Magoko in 2012, THE CUT depicts a community that is hellbent on maintaining female circumcision; so entrenched is the practice that it is the women who are at the forefront in its promotion. Girls run away from home to undergo the cut. The community appears not to take any anti-FGM message seriously.
Just what went wrong with the anti-FGM campaign in Kenya? Have the communities that practise it disregarded anyone attacking the practice for not having consulted them or do we take the words of British filmmaker Wade Davis from ‘Vanishing Cultures’ in the National Geographic News of October 28, 2010–“Every culture is ethnocentric, fiercely loyal to its own interpretation of reality”–as an apt explanation of the demand by the Maasai, the Samburu and the Kuria to be left alone to circumcise their women?
Shortly before the meeting of the women, Maasai elders had met with Kenya government officials in Kajiado County to express their dismay at the 2011 ban on female circumcision; they said they would not stop “initiating our girls”.
Traced to ancient Egypt, female circumcision isn’t confined to Africa and Asia where it is treated as a rite of passage; the cut was performed in USA and Europe in the 19th century to treat lesbianism, masturbation and hysteria.