Ending FGM & Harmful Traditional Practices: Engaging Our Religious & Cultural Leaders
By Otina Kennedy*
In many African communities, cultural leaders are increasingly under pressure to remain relevant in light of increasing awareness and advancements on human rights for women and men. There are many cultural practices that are in direct conflict with some of the national and regional laws, especially those which focus on the rights of women and girls. Most cultural institutions are male dominated and promote patriarchal tendencies that have remained a major hindrance to social justice and adherence to women’s and girls’ rights. The greatest challenge is transforming the attitudes of cultural leaders to promote the rights of women, without fear of losing their influence in their communities.
Since 2013, FEMNET (African Women’s Development and Communication Network), the Swedish Reproductive Health Organization (RFSU), Masculinity Institute (MAIN) and the Anglican Development Services Mount Kenya East (ADMSKE) have jointly partnered to tap in to the social status and influence religious and cultural leaders to promote sexual, reproductive, health and rights – SRHR for women and girls in Meru, Tharaka Nithi and Homabay counties in Kenya.
The project engages cultural and religious leaders in mobilising and leading their communities towards ending socio-cultural practices deeply-rooted in their communities such as female genital mutilation (FGM) and wife inheritance as a strategy to promote sexual and reproductive rights for women and girls in Tharaka Nithi and Homa Bay counties, respectively.
Using FEMNET’s Men to Men Strategy, the leaders have successfully cultivated an environment for religious and cultural leaders to work together to address FGM. For example, in Meru and Tharaka Nithi, the highly esteemed cultural leaders known as Njuri Ncheke have been openly supporting alternative rites of passage and are giving a consistent message to their communities.
The project has provided a platform where religious and cultural leaders share intelligence on secret ways used in performing FGM. One such tick is the transfer of girls from one village to another to confuse the locals. From this information, religious and cultural leaders are alert and continuously monitor the influx of non-resident girls into their neighborhoods to ensure they don’t undergo FGM. The national treasurer of the Njuri Ncheke, Mzee Mwamba from Mara, is a traditional male circumciser and gathered this intelligence:
‘One day as I was checking on the medicine used on circumcised boys, I noticed that somebody was using the herbs without my knowledge. Upon investigations, I was informed about some women who were colluding with my assistants to siphon the herbs. I later learned the women were administering the herbs on girls who had been brought in the neighborhood from other communities to undergo FGM. As a trainer of trainers on SRHR, I was embarrassed that this practice was still happening in my backyard. I reprimanded my assistants and the women involved who later shared the tricks that they use locally to perform FGM. I have gone further to establish a team of scouts who are keeping a watchful eye on girls visiting our area to protect them from FGM. Even though the women who were stealing my herbs committed to stop the practice, I had to report them to the area Chief who is the government representative at the village level to ensure they are known to the authorities for illegal activities.’
Women remain key allies in all the efforts to eradicate FGM. Society has pushed them into believing that FGM is a source of income and status in the community. Women have been pushed to justify FGM as a cultural heritage despite the negative impact the practice has on them directly. Most of the women who mutilate these young girls don’t believe that FGM is illegal and will go an extra mile to mobilise their fellow women to allow their girls to undergo the practice. “We can easily tell if a girl from a particular family has not been circumcised. Our cultural practice requires that after undergoing FGM, the mother to the girl must organise a dance ceremony for women in the village to perform songs and dances in praise of the circumcised girl”, said a woman who performs FGM. Men have continuously blamed women for performing FGM, yet they seldom publicly condemn it. This is a scapegoat used by the men to avoid taking responsibilityon FGM matters. Women should be made to understand the immediate and long term negative impacts of FGM on the girls and on women’s SRHR life.
Article 5 of the Maputo Protocol calls upon State Parties to prohibit “all forms of FGM” through legislative measures and supportive sanctions. Kenya has since come up with an anti-FGM law -“The Prohibition of the FGM Act 2011”. The Act explicitly prohibits female genital mutilation. However, the greatest challenge remains the implementation of law. The situation gets worse at the community level as some duty bearers accept FGM as sound cultural practice.
In Kenya, the government is represented in every village by administrators who are often picked from the same community. This is aimed at ensuring that they are familiar with the people they are governing. However, they also harbor attitudes that perpetuate negative cultural practices like FGM thereby hindering efforts towards eradicating it. A case in point is in Katwara village, where a family was free to perform FGM on their girls after paying Kshs. 6,500 (USD 70). The money is shared as follows: the area Chief and Assistant Chief get Kshs. 1,500 (USD 16) each, the village Headman gets Kshs.1,000 (USD 11) and the woman performing the cut gets Kshs. 2,000 (USD 22). When members of the community went to demand an explanation as to why the Chief as a government official was allowing the practice to continue in the village, he became indifferent.” Kila mtu ako na mtoto wake na anaweza kumfanyia kile anachotaka. Sitaki maneno yenu na mkijaribu kutuingilia tutawaroga” (Everybody has their own child and is free to do what they like. I don’t want to engage with you on question and answer anymore. I will bewitch anybody who interferes with us). The Chief has succeeded in intimidating the community members using his position in government. As a government representative in the community, it is unfortunate that he supports a practice that has been outlawed. This scenario is repeated many times over in communities and countries across Africa.
This year, the project partners have purposed to expand the stakeholders’ base to target other members of the community. In the coming months, we will be strengthening the role of women as advocates for the eradication of FGM. Men and boys will also be given a platform to openly voice and demand an end to FGM. Additionally, the project will undertake advocacy campaigns targeting national and county governments to ensure that the existing national laws are widely known by the citizenry, and are implemented. At national level, the project will share intelligence on the tricks community members are using to procure FGM on young girls with the National Anti FGM Board. The project will work together with the National Police Service to ensure that they are properly trained to handle these cases and that reported cases are prosecuted as a matter of public interest. It is sad that FGM is still a problem facing us at this time and age. This is a wakeup call to all of us that a lot more is needed to truly abandon and end FGM in our generation. There is need for concerted efforts by all – women and men, girls and boys, young and old, government and non-governmental institutions – as well as education, advocacy, outreach, political will and collaboration. This is not just a problem for the few, but for us as a people of Kenya. FGM is wrong. Protect the girl by raising your voice.
Join the campaign: #endfgm.
*Mr Otina Kennedy is the Program Associate (Regional Men to Men Program) at FEMNET.
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