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Monday, September 26, 2011

Law alone won’t end female circumcision

September 23, 2011
Daily Nation
Felista Wangari

Growing up in Narok the 1980s, Shinina Shani knew that every girl underwent the cut.

It was the rite that transformed girls into women, and which every proud Maasai girl went through.

However, Ms Shani’s Christian parents refused to give in when she begged them to allow her to be circumcised in order to fit in with her peers.

She got used to being referred to as Entito, a term which means girl, but when used to refer to an uncut woman is insulting.

Her father, too, had to bear contempt for allowing his daughter to escape the cut.

Even in the backdrop of the recently-passed law that prohibits female genital mutilation, not much has changed as cases of female circumcision in Narok South remain high.

Ms Shani, who now works as a crusader against the rite in the area, puts the female circumcision prevalence at over 90 per cent.

“The few girls who choose to avoid it are shunned and referred to as cowards and fake Maasais. They believe it is a bad omen to remain uncut and have children,” she explains.

Such beliefs keep a practice that was banned by presidential decree four times — the first time being in 1982 — alive.


Moreover, laws such as the Children’s Act, the Sexual Violence Act and the Domestic Violence Act, which aim to protect girls and women against harmful cultural practices, have had little, if any, effect on the custom.

However, Mount Elgon MP Fred Kapondi, when moving the motion, said that the existing laws had loopholes that allowed the practice to continue.

It is those loopholes that the Bill seeks to seal and top female circumcision.

Ms Shani applauds the law as timely.

Pre-teen and teenage girls in communities where it is still practised are getting ready for the peak circumcision season, which occurs during school holidays in December.

However, she is wary of the enforcement of the law, which will be key in stamping out the entrenched custom.

“Many laws have been enacted that could be used to protect women, but their people remain ignorant about them. Even some of the law enforcers are ignorant about the legislation that hinders implementation.”

“The government must make sure that information about this law reaches the communities concerned and that the law enforcers are also aware of the law and implement it. Otherwise, it will be just another law without results,” she explains.

Once it becomes fully operational, the law will protect women who have not undergone the cut from people who drive them to the cut with insults and discrimination.

A quarter of circumcised women surveyed in 2008/9 mentioned social acceptance as one reason they do it.

Under the new law, knowing that a woman is being circumcised and keeping quiet about it could land you in jail.

Other offences under the law include performing the cut, using one’s premises for the rite, aiding and abetting the performance of the cut, possession of tools to practice female circumcision, and taking a Kenyan to be circumcised outside the country.

Unlike the previous laws, which protected girls and women from general harmful cultural practices, the new law specifically targets female circumcision, defines it, and outlines the offences and penalties.

One found guilty of a crime under this law will be fined a minimum of Sh300,000 and a maximum of Sh500,000 while a jail term will last from three years to a maximum of seven years.

While praising the law as a harsh deterrent if implemented to the letter, campaigners maintain that such a deeply-rooted tradition cannot be stopped using the law alone.

They argue that the first approach should be to create awareness and persuade communities to abandon the unnecessary, risky and illegal cultural practice.

“We prefer a non-confrontational approach so as not to strain the girls’ relationship with their community, and it usually works. However, if dialogue fails, then the law can come in to protect the girl,” says Grace Senewa, a World Vision a project coordinator in Narok.

In a statement after the law was enacted on September 7, First Lady Lucy Kibaki, while calling on law enforcers to implement it strictly once it became fully operational, noted that legal bans alone could not change customs and cautioned that the law could drive the practice underground.

The campaigns against female circumcision preferred by some non-governmental organisations appear to have borne some fruit.

Data from the 2008/9 KDHS shows there has been a decline in the national prevalence from 38 per cent in 1998 and 32 per cent in 2003, to 27 per cent in 2008. This decline rises with the education level of the women involved.

Girls who have at least a secondary school education are less likely to be circumcised (19 per cent), as compared to women with no education, of whom 54 per cent have undergone the cut.

Among the Somalis, where 98 per cent of women report having had infibulation — the most severe form of the cut — female circumcision is seen as a religious requirement and most of the women believe it should continue.

Circumcision is also prevalent among the Kisii and the Maasai with a prevalence of 96 per cent and 73 per cent respectively.

Campaigns against female circumcision show that the trend has been to cut the girls when they are younger as almost half of the girls between 15 and 19 years were circumcised before they turned 10 years.

Grace Senewa, says that a campaign to promote an alternative rite of passage that does not involve circumcision has attracted more girls in Narok North over the years.

Girls who opt for the alternative rite of passage are taught the harmful effects of circumcision and persuaded to reject it.

One such rite was held last week at Olesito Primary School in Narok North, where 400 girls aged between 10 and 15 years graduated.

This was an increase from 70 girls who took part in the initial ceremony five years ago.

The ceremony was used to educate the people about the dangers and the new stringent legal implications of female circumcision.

Ms Senewa says that unfortunately, some girls who escape the cut are forcibly circumcised during childbirth.

“For such cases we are grateful that women can use the law to seek protection and justice,” she says.

To read the full article on the Daily Nation website, click here