A national strategy to eliminate Female Genital Mutilation in Kenya

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DR CHRISTIAN TURNER AND SIDDHARTH CHATTERJEE

On December 12, 2014, hundreds of young Samburu girls held a march in Maralal to protest against Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). Meanwhile, just a few kilometres away, a delegation of elders from Samburu came together to voice their total opposition to any efforts to end FGM in their community. Unfortunately, this remains a common refrain. Within many ethnic groups in Kenya, as elsewhere, FGM is a practice deeply embedded in traditional and cultural norms.

Female Genital Mutilation has numerous harmful effects on the physical, sexual and psychological health of girls and women. In the 21st century, no woman or girl should suffer or die due to FGM. Any effort to eradicate it must involve uncompromising political will and leadership, backed up by strong measures and collective actions at community level. The good news is that this is happening in Kenya, where FGM is a declining practice.

FGM rates among 15 – 49 year olds have declined from 37.6pc to 27.1pc over a ten-year period. However, with one in four girls in Kenya still being cut, the percentage remains too high, and efforts to end the practice need to be stepped up. With increasing numbers of Kenyan women and girls calling for an end to FGM, their voices must now be heard.

Today is World Day for Zero Tolerance to FGM. The UK Government, together with the United Nations Joint Programme on FGM/C (UNFPA-UNICEF) wish to take this opportunity to recognize the achievements to date of the Government of Kenya towards eradicating female genital mutilation, and to reaffirm our commitment to supporting them in their efforts to end FGM within a generation.

The UK Government supports the UN Joint Programme on FGM/C in 17 countries as well as The Girl Generation, a campaign team working to galvanise the Africa-led movement to end FGM. Both programmes are active in Kenya and work closely with the government here. The UN Joint Programme works with local partners to deliver community education programmes to highlight the issues around FGM and to advocate for ‘Alternative Rites of Passage’, in which the girl experiences all the elements of the ceremony marking the transition to womanhood, but is not cut. This approach can be highly effective, as evidenced by declining rates of FGM in Kenya, including in Meru County.

The challenges facing eradication remain significant, and many now believe the time has come for a National Strategy to end FGM within a single generation. But what might such a strategy look like?

First and foremost, it must reflect the voices and efforts of those women and communities already speaking out against FGM. It must be country-led and have the full support of all parts of the government, and political will down to the county level. The county Governors must be at the vanguard, as many have committed to be. The reach of governmental bodies together with civil society partners would enable greater dissemination of information, especially by the use of public broadcasting services such as television and radio. Political will could also be expressed through the institutionalization of a wide range of measures targeting the elimination of FGM. A National Strategy should seek to bring all players together, so that we all speak with one voice.

Kenya is a country that represents a challenge of size and diversity of ethnic groups. The Government of Kenya took a very positive step in the formation of a dedicated Anti-FGM board, with the sole focus of eliminating female genital mutilation from Kenyan society. To enable it to carry out its remit, that body should now be given the full weight of the law, including on measures of enforcement, which would require strong national and county level political support.

FGM as a practice is strongly tied to tribal and religious traditions. It is a community norm, a social contract that the entire tribe or village undertakes together. This is an important factor to consider and understand. Eliminating FGM would therefore require the endorsement of the entire community, women and men alike. Any national strategy must work on a community-by-community basis. There will be no ‘one size fits all’ solution, and the influencers will differ across communities. We must also be clear that it is possible for community traditions to be honoured in ways that do not endanger the health, basic human rights, or even lives of the girls and women within that community.

The aim of a national strategy will ultimately be not only to eliminate FGM, but in doing so to empower millions of Kenyan girls and women, enabling them to play a full and unhindered role in society. In the words of Professor Babatunde Osotimehin, Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), “human development cannot be fully achieved as long as women and girls continue to suffer from this human rights violation or live in fear of it.”

The First Lady of Kenya, Margaret Kenyatta, has herself said: “we as a country must aspire to achieve a zero FGM status where every girl can go to school, find and fulfil her destiny, enjoy her rights and contribute to nation building.”

Today we celebrate Zero Tolerance for FGM. It is a time for partners to stand together and be counted, for all of us to come together behind the Government of Kenya and to support their efforts to end FGM in a generation.

Female Genital Mutilation has no role whatsoever to play in the 21st Century. Together, we can consign it to the history books once and for all.

(Dr Turner is the British High Commissioner to Kenya while Chatterjee is the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Representative to Kenya)

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