OPINION: No emotive approach to FGM, medicalization still rife
By Maria Wanza
There was jubilation when a petitioner, Dr Tatu Kamau, had her case thrown out of court. She had petitioned the court in 2017, challenging the Prohibition Act of 2011 against Female Genital Mutilation/ Cutting (FGM/C).
Dr Tatu was seeking to have FGM decriminalized in Kenya and have it recognized as a cultural rite. As expected, those who challenged her stance came at her in droves. As she waited for the ruling at the Machakos court on March 17, 2021, it might have seemed like she was alone. But either unbeknownst to her or not, a good number of people supported her.
The last 12 months have not been easy for any country fighting FGM/C because it suddenly became a pandemic within a pandemic.
During the International Day of Zero Tolerance to FGM in February 2021, UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore and UNFPA Executive Director Natali Kanem, in a joint statement, noted that two million additional cases of FGM may occur over the next decade as COVID-19 shutters schools and disrupts educational and social protection programs that help protect girls from this harmful practice.
This exacerbates the very grim situation where one in every five women and girls who are aged between 15years and 49 years have undergone FGM/C.
It is not only COVID-19 that is threatening to erode the gains that have been made so far in the fight against FGM/C. It is disheartening stories like the ones that Monica Yator tells me. She is the Founder and Executive Director of Indigenous Women and Girls, a Community Based Organization in Baringo.
I met her recently during a workshop hosted by the African Women’s Development and Communications Network (FEMNET) and Deliver For Good Campaign advisory partners, which focused on media training for and coaching that targeted grassroots women champions and journalists.
“The narrative of FGM has changed. In my community, women of 50 years and above are getting circumcised after being pressured by their fellow women,” she told me.
“The women who are uncircumcised are told that they will not welcome their sons back home once the sons are circumcised. They also are not allowed to cook for them nor fetch water in the same place as those women who have gone through the cut,” she added.
According to Monica, that most of the women in the community she works in succumb to peer pressure, social stigma and discrimination: they fear having what they deem to be limited choices. “We are trying to fight this vice but we need the government’s help on this. Our leaders must speak out on it,” she says.
When social norms and attitudes like these are not countered strongly on the ground, the fight against FGM/C becomes a lost battle; yet it must be won through implementing existing laws and policies as government commitments contained in President Uhuru Kenyatta’s pronouncements at the Women Deliver global conference in Vancouver, Canada (in July 2019) and at the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD25), a global summit that was held in Nairobi in October 2019.
Another school of thought that must be countered strongly with facts and not emotions is that of medicalization of FGM/C.
According to the program consortium dubbed The Evidence to End FGM/C, medicalization of FGM is the rise because the method is perceived to be safer, seeing that all procedures are reportedly performed under sterile conditions by trained health professionals.
Additionally, medicalization is believed to shorten the recovery period. There is also the fact that there is a monetary incentive for the health workers performing it.
Back to Dr Tatu and her battalion. I recently had an ‘interesting’ conversation with a lady l will call Jane. She boldly told me that she is not only a supporter of FGM/C, but she also willingly chose to go through the cut after she was 18 years old.
“This fight you people are putting up is one l don’t understand. I chose to be cut and l have no problem with it,” she said without blinking her eyes.
She went on to tell me that she is against the girl child going through Female Genital Mutilation/Cut. “That child’s rights have been taken away by the harmful practices emanating from cultural norms that need to be addressed,” she said.
However, she is okay if the girl is left to grow up and make the choice herself. What she supports is that when one is over 18 years, they should be allowed to do what they want with their bodies.
“Don’t take away my right to do what l want with my body. I am already an adult by the time l get to 18 years. When l went for the cut, we were several girls and we were okay with it,” she said.
This is clearly a matter of how the Constitution of Kenya that directly prohibits FGM/C is being ignored by the women and girls and their communities. As she spoke animatedly, l listened to her thinking ‘This is a crisis within a crisis’!
When she realized I was shocked by her statement she said: “They say that when we get the cut we will have fistula. I agree it happens in some cases but l don’t have fistula neither do the girls l went with. They say that l will be married off immediately after the cut, l am not married. My friends and l date whoever we want. They say, l will not have an education because of the cut, l am a degree holder and so are my friends. We are all educated and some of us are furthering our education to Masters Level and beyond.”
It is no wonder that the two Executive Directors of UNICEF and UNFPA continue to urge those fighting against FGM/C to unite.
“Ending Female Genital Mutilation requires collaboration among a wide group of stakeholders. This includes global, regional, -national and local policy makers; to international non-governmental organizations; agents of change from teachers and health workers to religious leaders and local elders; as well as law enforcement and judicial officials. Men and boys also have crucial role to play,” the agencies said.
But where are the women and girls? Why aren’t they counted and considered as key players? Who is addressing the systemic social discrimination, stigma and peer pressure that forces them to take this route?
This piece challenges us to all go back to the table and address some schools of thought that could be detrimental to the gains that have already been made. The fight against FGM/C must be fought from all fronts and must evolve as the arguments evolve.
And l dare add, that every stakeholder must come to the table with their thinking caps on, without emotive grand standings and ready to dialogue with the women and girls. If we are to address the discriminatory social norms and structural root causes that threatens to erode the gains already made.
Maria Wanza is a communications consultant and actress who writes on gender equality and women empowerment. She is a member of The Arican Women’s Development and Communications Network (FEMNET) and the Association of Media Women In Kenya (AMWIK)