What you need to know:
Female genital Mutilation, therefore, continues to be a challenge in rural African communities
When Fausiya Mollel, a Tanzanian student, presented a paper on Female Genital Mutilation in Africa to her class at Aston University in England, everyone was horrified. Her colleagues wondered if there was any effectiveness in protection of human rights in Africa. In his own assumption, the class professor thought Mollel had created a factious story to obtain good grades. Indeed, it all seemed too grim to believe.
Even with heavy sensitisation, years have gone by and Female Genital Mutilation, also known as FGM, is still with us. The archaic practice still happens in more than 28 countries in Africa and a few scattered communities elsewhere in the world. In Africa, much of it is seen in Nigeria, Egypt, Mali, Eritrea, Sudan, Central African Republic, and the northern part of Ghana, where it has been an old traditional and cultural practice of various ethnic groups. The highest prevalence rates, however, are in Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania and Djibouti.
FGM is a practice whose origin and significance is shrouded in secrecy, uncertainty, and confusion. In some cultures, it is a ritual considered as an initiation of young teenage girls into womanhood. It is also done to promote chastity and curb promiscuity. In most of these communities it is woven deeply into their culture and its origin cannot be pegged to one reason.
Although Kenya criminalized FGM in 2011, with a punishment of three-years-imprisonment and a $2,000 fine, the practice rages on because some communities regard it as necessary for social acceptance and increasing their daughters’ marriage prospects. The law has also been challenged in court with a petition seeking to legalize FGM on grounds that the ban is unconstitutional and that adult women should be allowed to do what they wish with their bodies.
“We find that limiting this right is reasonable in an open and democratic society, based on the dignity of women,” said judge Lydia Achode of Mombasa Law court. “The amended petition is devoid of merit and hereby dismissed.” The petition had been made by Tatu Kamau, a doctor and women’s rights activist in Kenya.
East African Writer, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, in his book, “The River Between”, wrote about a girl called Muthoni who had a belief that she couldn’t live without circumcision. Although Muthoni, a devote Christian, cherished her faith, she still felt incomplete without circumcision, a practice all other women in her kikuyu community underwent. She escaped from her family to attend a mass circumcision ceremony in the forest. The event ended tragically with her losing her life due to excessive bleeding and infection. Before she died, though, she told her sister that she was happy— she was going to see Jesus as a complete real woman, one who had fulfilled her cultural and religious norms.
In Tarime, a rural town in Mara Region in Tanzania, Grace Shija, a student, narrowly escaped the ‘cutting’ when law enforcement decided to turn her up to her parents. She had sought refuge at a police station before enforcement officers pounced on her. Her relatives, the community and her grandmother in particular had sworn that she had to get circumcised at any cost – dead or alive.
In the Karamojong community in Uganda, if a woman does not undergo FGM, she faces not only public ridicule but also is put at risk of losing her bride price. This is a significant deterrent in choosing to remain uncut, even though legislation makes the practice punishable by law. Research shows that women have utilized Covid-19 lockdowns to cut themselves in private and receive medical care later.
Female genital Mutilation, therefore, continues to be a challenge in rural African conmunities. Dorcas Chelain, the LC5 Vice Chairperson of Amudat District, in Uganda advises social workers and activists to take a different approach in curbing the practice. For instance, Chelain explains that simply speaking to the women in Amudat has proven ineffective.
“Innovative problem-solving techniques are required to involve communities in the elimination of harmful traditions. It also became clear that change would have to start at the family level with parents, particularly fathers, taking on a more active role in the lives of their daughters, she offered. Providing education about FGM to communities, particularly young men coupled with keeping girls in school appeared to be some of the most effective ways of fighting FGM.
Ms Martha Nkya is a Tanzanian graduate student at Open University of Tanzania.