September 16, 2010
Women News Network
Pokot District, Kenya: Human rights lawyers are asking Kenyan men to be a stronger part of the fight against female genital mutilation (FGM), which despite being illegal in Kenya, is still widely practiced by some communities.
One of the communities that has not yet abandoned FGM is Kenya’s Pokot community. Unfortunately in the district, many men in the region, and throughout Africa, still encourage circumcisers to continue the practice.
Most Pokot men place value and usually demand that a woman must be circumcised in order to marry, but there are some growing exceptions to this rule.
“I was circumcised as a little girl and I managed to get a husband,” says Selina Lorupe, a 43 year old mother of 2 children. “Many women in my Pokot community continue to be circumcised. It is part of our culture but other women are slowly resisting this move,” she highlights.
Numbers from The Maendeleo Ya Wanawake Organization, a group that fights for the rights of women in Africa, estimate that 500 young Pokot girls and women were circumcised, in only one month, last December 2009, alone.
Despite FGM being rampant among the Pokot, advocacy groups are working hard to educate local women about the health dangers associated with the practice. But society pressures sometimes outweigh education. Advocates have noticed some improvements through their campaigns, but improvements over the past years have been backsliding.
More Pokot men are now marrying women outside their communities, from places such as the Kikuyu, Meru, and Kuria, where the practice of FGM – female genital mutilation – remains intact.
Kenyan human right lawyers suggest this undermines the fight to discourage FGM, making it even more difficult to eradicate.
Prominent family lawyer and former chairperson of Kenya’s Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA), an organization that provides free legal service, Judy Thongori, says that the rural Pokot communities still practice FGM more than any other Kenyan community.
“FGM was outlawed in Kenya in early 2003, but communities are still practicing the vice,” says Judy Thongori. “The Pokot are known to be very notorious (in their approach to FGM). Even advocacy has done little to reduce incidences. Women and girls who refuse to be circumcised are often thrown out of their homes by relatives.”
“The Pokot, who straddle the Uganda-Kenya border, are one of just two groups known to carry out female circumcision in Uganda,” said a 2006 report by IRIN news, a project of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
In addition to the usual procedures, the Pokot community often also uses a severe form of FGM called infibulation, which includes the removal of all the external genitalia. The vaginal opening is then stitched closed, leaving only a small passage.
Although 2010 figures may have slightly improved, “The estimated figure for the percentage of women and girls circumcised in West Pokot district is 96 per cent,” says a 2004 report by the ISS – Institute for Security Studies Africa.
The ritual of FGM must be seen in the context of culture. The Rift Valley Province covering the West Pokot District has a history of high priced bride dowries, even though the region suffers from abject poverty.
Men wishing to marry are often without resources to pay for dowries, which often require them to gather many herding animals to pay for a dowry before they are allowed to marry. A large herd for a dowry is often beyond their reach. This practice has created a community of raiding, higher domestic violence, violent crime and an increased familiarity and use of firearms in rural communities.
Rural Pokot woman, Sarah Lowasa, now 21 years old, is a mother who has been separated from her husband now for some years. During her marriage she was physically and emotionally abused and mistreated.
At the age of 6, Sarah experienced FGM. Today, she deeply regrets it. “No woman should go through this ordeal,” says Sarah. “This ordeal has caused me to develop a genital malformation.” Due to Sarah’s FGM complications, at the age of 6, she had to be airlifted to a Nairobi hospital because of excessive bleeding, which almost killed her.
“There is need to work with men on matters relating to FGM if this war is to be won,” reminds Sarah Lowasa. “Good legislation and punishment of the circumcisers does not yield any fruits. We as women need to encourage men to also be activists in the fight against this vice.”
As early as 2003 Kenya outlawed the practice of female genital mutilation, but the practice continues as the law is often unenforced in many regions. Because the Kenyan Pokot community borders Uganda, circumcisers sometimes take girls across the border for the procedure and bring them back home to Kenya afterward.
FGM is often practiced during school holidays, especially in December, throughout the Pokot District, especially in the rural areas.
“It (FGM) is part of our culture and I do not see anything wrong with it as long as the right measures are taken such as using clean equipment (knife blades) to prevent HIV infection,” admits prominent Nairobi businessman, Mr. Julius Maina.
“It has always been part of our culture over the years and I do not see why it is being condemned in recent times, while women who have undergone the ritual are living normal lives,” outlines Mr. Maina.
Kenyan medical epidemiologists fear today that the practice of FGM is fueling the spread of HIV in numerous communities. They have hinted that studies will soon begin to determine the impact of HIV, specifically HIV spread and the practice of FGM among the Pokot people of Kenya.
One recent study by the University of Nairobi found that a shared blade is often used to circumcise up to sixty girls during the same initiation ceremony.
“We need much more education,” says circumcised woman, Sarah Lowasa. “Most circumcisers do not even have medical training so the risk of making blunders during the initiation ceremony is very high. Traditionally circumcisers are elderly women who do not even realize the changing cultural trends of society. Men say that having sex with a circumcised women is more pleasurable as compared to women who are not circumcised,” added Sarah.
In the Rift Valley Province, it is expected that Pokot girls will be circumcised before the age of 15. Grown women also go through the procedure. Alone, without family support, many of these rejected adult women face a life of hardship. Some are forced to turn to lives as sex-labourers without their husbands.
As Pokot women face the demands of family and society, the pressure to submit to the FGM procedure intensifies. Adult women and mothers of young daughters, often feel forced to choose circumcision. Often in these circumstances, FGM is considered the “lesser of two evils.”
Pokot Mother and Child
FGM is a cultural practice that is not based on religion. In Kenya and Tanzania, a larger percentage of women and girls who undergo the procedure come from Christian (not Islamic) families. “This diversity stems from the fact that FGC (female genital cutting) is a social and cultural practice, not a religious one. It predates the birth of both Islam and Christianity. Origins of the practice are unclear; however, it is generally traced to Pharaonic Egypt, based on evidence found on mummies,” says a recent 2010 report from WISE – Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality.
As a young girl, Ms. Salome Wanjiru, now 72 years old, went against her local tradition of being circumcised. Marrying outside her Kikuyu community and into the community in Luhya-land in Western Kenya she later migrated to another part of the country. She and her husband now have several children and grandchildren.
“I decided to settle in Western Kenya. For more than fifty years I have been living here comfortably,” says Ms. Wanjiru. “I went against the odds in not being circumcised and surprisingly, my understanding husband agrees with me,” Salome admits. “FGM should never be allowed in any community. Women deserve their dignity.”
In spite of the proper legislation being in place since 2003 in Kenya, the enforcement of the law is still desperately needed.
Attorney and former member of the Kenyan Parliament and architect of the Kenya Sexual Offenses Act, Ms. Njoki Ndungu, advocates for the hiring of more police officers who will crack down on the practice of FGM. But she feels the support of other administrators and officials is essential to eradicate the practice.
“There is need to punish the people involved in the practice of FGM,” she says. “I am sad that despite proper legislation here in Kenya, most perpetrators get away scot-free and (are) never prosecuted under the current law. (The practice of) FGM is now chipping away at the foundation of the Kenyan family. Now more than ever, girls opt to run away (instead of facing circumcision) to places such as Nairobi to work as prostitutes. (This makes) them more vulnerable to HIV, rape by police and other authorities, as well,” she stresses.
Higher education, with a push to bring districts into greater action and knowledge, is the framework that will help reduce FGM. Without a constant push against tradition eradicating FGM will become impossible.
“There is greater need to hire more law enforcement in these communities,” adds Ms. Ndungu. “In Kenya, there is only one police officer per 1000 persons. That figure is (the) law. The government should hire more police officers in the coming fiscal budget year,” stresses Ndungu during her recent interview with Gitonga Njeru for Women News Network.
The Kenyan government has now spearheaded a program that hopes to see more rural women educated on matters relating to female circumcision. The targeted communities for the education programs are the Kuria, Kikuyu, Ameru, and Pokot.
“In our Somali Community FGM is normal,” says Somali born Kenyan man, Mr. Abdulahi Osman, in complete opposition to 72 year old Ms. Salome Wanjiru’s modern ideas. “The women bear us children and the ones I know who have undergone the cut are in good health. I have two wives who underwent the cut. They satisfy my physical needs and that is the most important part of it.”
In spite of Mr. Osman’s views, and the views of many other men of the Pokot, not all men from Kenya support the procedure of FGM.
“As a young boy growing up, it was more common than today for women and girls to be circumcised. It made me cry to see girls cry in severe pain,” says prominent Kenyan attorney, Mr. Clifford Ombati. “I think men and women need to unite to fight FGM. As a lawyer I have represented many women in court and it makes me feel good that the vice is now outlawed in Kenya. The cases lawyers receive, however, are still very few in the courts and some take up to 10 years to be finalized,” added the attorney.