Communities challenge female genital mutilation

December 3, 2010

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Writes Key Correspondent, Abjata Khalif.

Each school holiday in northern Kenya comes with a traditional ritual where the community line up young girls to undergo female genital mutilation (FGM).

The girls are brought together for orientation and they are taught how the ritual is important for their future life and that the exercise is meant to remove some dirty part of their genitalia.

The orientations are done by unapologetic traditional circumcisers who prepare the young girls to face the knife. They are informed that prominent women in the region have undergone ‘the cut’ and without undergoing it, the possibility of getting married are remote as no pastoralist man will marry a girl with ‘dirt’ in her genitalia.

Women listen to a radio programme about FGM in Garissa Town, KenyaWomen listen to a radio programme about FGM in Garissa Town, Kenya

During the orientation, girls receive ululation from their mothers who are stationed some distance away from the orientation room. The presence of the parents is meant to boost the confidence of the girls ahead of these painful rituals.

Parents at home top up the orientation by lecturing the young girls on the importance of the cut with most of them informing the innocent girls that the ritual is meant to contribute to behavioral checks, family honor, ensure they’re able to marry, ensure cleanliness, control sexuality, is a religious obligation and, provides cultural identity.

The Somali community living in the Northern Kenya towns of Wajir, Mandera and Garissa practice type three FGM, also known as infibulation, which is the most severe form of mutilation. Type three involves cutting of the entire clitoris and labia minora while labia majora are thinly sliced or scrapped and the raw surface stitched or sealed together.

However, a cross section of the community are up in arms against the ritual, arguing that it contributes to health risks like hemorrhage, difficulty in giving birth, difficulty in passing urine and even death. Women from the pastoralist communities have also taken issue with the religious justification that legitimizes the cut. Through various forums and discussions, the women and religious leaders have come up with an interpretation that the act is actually forbidden by Islam and that the ritual is a practice borrowed from Egypt during the Pharaonic period.

Asha Mulki, a woman leader with Frontier Indigenous Network, said the ritual has led to many girls in the region bleeding to death after receiving the cut, as traditional circumcisers use sharp objects and lack knowledge of first aid that would assist them in controlling the excessive bleeding.

“The ritual is barbaric and meant to traumatize young girls for rest of their lives. Some die in the hands of the traditional circumcisers while others die at home due to complications resulting from the cut. The parents hide information on their daughter’s death because they support the cut” says Asha.

Asha is herself a victim of the ritual and says most parents are using fake religious justifications and cultural beliefs that the cut will remove the dirty part of the girl’s genitalia to continue cutting.

“We have met religious leaders and their interpretation on this matter is simple: that the Islamic religion forbids the act of cutting as it’s tantamount to damaging human organs. We have ganged up with them to educate the communities in all corners of Northern Kenya on the dangers of the practice and to demystify fake religious backing” she said.

However as women and religious leaders unite to demystify the fake religious backing some parents continue to follow, young girls continue to be frogmarched to the traditional circumcisers and their knives.

Dubey Maalim, a mother of three daughters, said the act is good and is meant to control her daughters’ sexuality and prepare them for marriage. She said: “I will not stop taking my daughters to face the knife as I have faced it and it’s meant to control sexuality so that girls can remain well behaved while waiting to be married. My two daughters have undergone it and the remaining one will face it during the next school holiday.”

The traditional circumcisers claimed that the ritual forms part of their livelihoods and that they don’t force parents to bring their daughters to face the knife.

An unapologetic circumciser named Bishara Maalim said: “We don’t force the parents and they look for us to do the work. I cannot stop doing the practice as it’s the only business I know here. Yes I sympathise with the girls when they face the knife as most of them faint and others die in our hands but again their parents insist the cut should go on.”

Bishara confessed two girls died in her hands while she was administering the cut on them. “The two girls experienced excessive bleeding and I could not control it and the parents feared to take them to hospital so they died while me and their parents watched.” The traditional circumciser narrated that the exercise is risky as they are forced to use various tools like blades, knives and broken bottles to cut and then thorns and needles to stitch the raw surface afterwards.

She said: “When I use these tools I sense how the girls writhe in pain with some of them fainting or going into unconsciousness… but I have to do FGM, as it is my trade.”

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