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Monday, July 12, 2010

On the frontlines of the fight against female genital mutilation

July 12, 2010
By Diane Walsh - The Vancouver Observer

Women in the West Pokot District of the Rift Valley Province in Kenya.

Although political mood is beginning to change, it is not that often we hear about the subject of female genital mutilation (FGM) in any great depth. Most people in the West believe that female genital mutilation - alternatively called female genital cutting (FGC) and female circumcision - was something that went on, in history, at some random point, in ‘darkest Africa’. 

It is practised today.  Still— yes—and with force, in several parts of the world including countries in Africa but also in parts of Indonesia, Malaysia and the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Iraq (Kurdistan). With international migration, FGM has been exported to Western soil and governments of the US, the UK, Switzerland, Scandinavian countries, and Australia are now playing a role in enforcing its criminalization.  
But first, let’s rewind 3,500 + years of history.  To understand female-cutting’s origins, Wikipedia’s article is a good starting point. The traditional cultural practices of FGM predate Christianity and Islam. It’s widely accepted, academically, to have originated in Egypt during the Pharaohs’ civilization.  
In present times, that is to say—today—a senior consultant for WHO based in Geneva, tells us it should be comforting to know the highest religious authority in Egypt, the Al-Azhar Supreme Council of Islamic Research, stated that FGM has no basis in core Islamic law or any of its partial provisions and that it is harmful and should not be practiced.  Good to know.  Therefore we should expect for the global efforts to eradicate FGM. 
But the picture is obviously extremely complex. Globally accepted, as good and just, is the authority of the Inter-African Committee.  It’s both the source of information on international convention(s) and local legislation(s) and the template for the political commitment to end FGC, highlighted in the form of, and sanctioned by its Maputo Protocol.  This agreement is synchronized with the “African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights of Women in Africa” and, signed by, the African Union (2003).  In addition, theWorld Health Organization defines 4 forms of FGM and its stake in its actions against all practices.  
But anyone can look up internet links. 
What isn’t as ABC as surfing the web for fighting-cause dialogue, is having direct access to an individual who is knowledgeable, localized and working towards FGM prevention.   
VO is proud to have been able to catch up with one such remarkable woman for an exclusive interview, Lilian Plapan, based in Kenya.  A member of one of the Inter African Committee’s NGOs, in offices that are located in Kapenguria, Kenya (close to the Ugandan border) and, here in VO, she’s imparting her indigenous knowledge so that we can better understand the conundrum facing the efforts to eradicate FGM.  
Lilian Plapan’s information is both exemplary and candid.  She’s the current spokesperson for SETAT Women’s Organization, operated through the IAC’s website-section: “Traditional practices that affect health of women and children.”  SETAT doesn’t have a website of its own. We connected through some modern telecommunications with solid contact outside of the area.  
Kapenguria is the capital of the West Pokot District, in Kenya; it’s a town north of Kisumu situated NE of Kitale on the A1 road and has a population in excess of 55,000, including surrounding outskirts.
VO: Why is SETAT situated where it is?
LP: We decided on this because this is where FGM is still very high in this region.    
VO: Do you prefer that the term, Female Circumcism (FC), Female Genital Cutting (FGC) or Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in activist-parlance?
LP: We prefer [the use of the term], FGM. 
VO: What is your group's view on the practice on girls?
My group's view is that FGM is serious.  The type, practiced here [in the Kapenguria region in Kenya] is Type III: infibulation, which is mutilating the genitals of a woman or girl.
VO: Please give us a sense, if you would of, the scenario(s), in the region re: differing cutting practices?  Is there a tendancy toward lesser cutting?
LP: FGM practice is community specific. Kenya is a multi ethnic nation.  FGM is community specific to some religious sects.  All types, from Type I to Type IV, are practiced.
(a)  Type I, where you remove clitoris pubis, is practiced among the Kipsigis, Nandi ethnic groups Nubians and Kisiis.
(b)  Type II, also known as, excision, where you remove clitoris and labia minora, is practiced in Mt. Elgon, Nandi and Sebei of Uganda Masais, among the other MAA speaking communities.
(c)  Type III, also known as infibulations, and practiced by the Pokot, Marakwet, Somalis and other communities in the north.
(d)  Type IV is practiced by Nubians.  There is also clitoris pulling among the Bagisu tribes in the Kenya-Uganda Boarder.
Does your SETAT group have a set recorded policy towards FGM as well as specific funds allocated to combating it?
We do anti-FGM advocacy.  Our policy is towards abandonment [eradication] of FGM using all the strategies.  Most of the sensitized, [i.e.] educated, girls are abandoning FGM.  But yet, as we have found in last year, those [who are] educated [are] resorting to FGM due to in-laws pressure.  We depend on funding from anti-FGM-supporting partners and members volunteering.
If not, is this primarily due to Western aid agencies not willing to focus funding on it in a systematic and comprehensive way?
I may not look at it as Western agencies [who are] not willing to support.  The most disturbing issue is: whose reality is it; who, is having the problem.  African governments should now be spearheading allocation of funds to combat FGM and its harmful effects with humble requests for the Western agencies to step-up their funding to help stop this menace.
The western press has recently taken hold of information about a women's NGO called, Maendeleo ya Wanawake Organization, currently offering something (we’re being told) is: “circumcision through words”—touted as an alternative, rite of passage, but without the bloodshed.
Do you agree with and approve of this approach?
I participated in the rite of passage, conceptualized by Maendeleo Ya Wanawake, at the formulation stage.  They leaned upon FGM as a rite of passage and they maintained that if the girls were trained and a celebration was hosted with declaration that girls were now mature after seclusion. This was accepted by some communities.
But for some it has not been accepted. Some have been known to go to the seminars and thereafter come back and undergo FGM. In the areas where FGM is still high, they believe that blood must be shed so that the childhood dies and new life of womanhood begins to satisfy the ancestors.  And also, for the ancestors to acknowledge that their offspring has grown up.
Apart from Maendeleo Ya Wanawake group-concept, Dr. Susan Chebet of Tumto Ne Leel came up with concept that, in FGM, there is a very important session: where older women, known as, motiren, train the girls on indigenous knowledge.  So they came up with training that the motiren take part in training the girls and seclude them; then pass out (as in Maendeleo Ya wanawake group's concept). For the Keiyo community this could work. 
But for some communities (like, the Sabaot and the Pokot) one cannot reveal the community secrets to the uncircumcised.  This is a challenge. Negotiating with them to accept, to impart knowledge, without bloodshed.
There are those that practice FGM as religion; through sects, like, Mungiki and Dini Ya Msabwa or Mafuta Pole Africa sects.  This will need a lot of sensitization and education.
 Do you liaise on any projects? For instance, I understand (that is to say, I have been told) that the efforts of Setat Women's organization, in fighting FGM, have started to see some success, namely, in Pokot.  The report goes something like this: It's been described as a well organized scheme that is enticing “former circumcisers” by giving them livestock and assisting them to start businesses.  “Former initiators" (as they've been referred to) have responded and some have begun to encourage "current circumcisers" to join the program.  FGM is thus reduced in Pokot as a result, even though it's a region where FGM is still widely accepted.
Setat Women's organization NGO is also a National Committee for Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices that affect health of women and children and [it] uses all strategies, according to, communities’ values.
For example in Pokot, it will not be very easy to get all the elders to seminars in hotels. As this is the community I hail from, I [did] conceptualize Kirket Advocacy.  In Kirket advocacy, a cow is slaughtered, roasted and served to elders using peace leaves.  This brings out all the villagers.  The highest social structure is the elders who have undergone sapana and poro ritual; followed by men who are circumcised, but have not undergone, sapana ritual; then, young boys and women and girls.  In this type, you will meet all the members.
 In the highest structure, no uncircumcised women or girls may serve them. 
If you plan for a seminar where you just cook, food; the elders will say, it was meant for children.  If you prepare one in a hotel, they will say it is for Europeans.
 [And] so, this complicates the issue further.
For excisors, it is the Pokot economic-relationship arrangement, known as, Tilya system.  In this concept, the Pokot had [such an] arrangement where, if one of the relatives [is] not necessarily, a blood relative, you give a cow for the family to use for milk.  If he does well; later, you take as-and-when you require.  Then leave the economic relative with one cow and you will have empowered the relative.
If an excisor, who has been trained and observed to have abandoned FGM, is empowered and he signs an agreement, after five years he will give one calf to another excisor who has been trained.  The next will be taken again from the excisor after three years.  The rest [of the] animals will be for the excisor.  Follow up will always be done.  If she relapses to excisions we withdraw all the cattle and the relationship is severed.  This has succeeded.   We gave cattle in 2003, and last year we took [them] some calves and empowered other excisors.  We replicated, same, to women in Mt. Elgon, we gave them sheep.  And, in Marigat, we gave goats, according to climatic environment.  For goats, the giving of young is in two years.  This, in essence, delays the excisor for close to 10 years and hence they are not likely to relapse to excisions.
This interview is part of a series of VO articles discussing the issue of FGM/FGC. In coming weeks, we will feature a follow-up article that focuses on the efforts of institutions including the WHO and Oxfam in the eradication of FGM/FCG.