Kenya passes anti-FGM law, will it stop the Cut?

MRG’s Africa Regional Information Officer, Mohamed Matovu, probes the success of the anti-FGM law that Kenya and several other African countries have passed.

Kenya recently passed a law outlawing Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), joining a small but growing list of African countries that have criminalized the cut.

Those who practice, cause to practice or make snide remarks to those who don’t undergo the cut will from now on, at least in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Benin, Ivory Coast, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guinea, Niger, Nigeria, Central African Republic, Senegal, Chad and Togo, face either a jail sentence or fine.

Just like in other countries, news of the anti-FGM law was well received in Kenya by civil society and women parliamentarians who have been pivotal in fighting legislations and cultural practices seen to violate women’s rights.

According to Zeituna Roba, a gender activist and Minority Rights Group International partner, the Kenya Women Parliamentary Association should be credited for consistently pushing parliament and male colleagues to unanimously say no to FGM.

“Kenya women parliamentarians, including Hon. Sophia Abdi and Linah Kilimo, were really vigilant in ensuring the bill received support in Parliament,” Zeituna said.

The parliamentary lobby group, according to Zeituna, would, however, probably not have yielded results without advocacy support from local rights-based civil society organisations, the Ministry of Gender and international organisations like UNICEF.

Now that the law is in place, the next hurdle is if government has the resources and commitment to operationalise it so that we see the end of FGM, a centuries old practice so deeply rooted in African culture.

Several activists that MRG talked to think the law will only work with in conjunction with intensive education of practising communities.
Zeituna says, “Not many communities who practice FGM are aware of the existing laws against the cut. In North eastern province for instance the practice is done in secret. It is important to sensitise communities with a view to change their attitudes. We also need to involve religious leaders. For instance some Cushitic/Islamic communities tend to believe that FGM is allowed in the Holy Q’uran.”

The other challenge to the legislation, according to Jane Naini Meriwa, the Executive Director of a Samburu-based women’s organisation, is that some practising communities see the anti-FGM law as an attack on their cultural identity.

“The opinion of some minority/indigenous communities in Kenya is not positive because they see the anti-FGM law as a deliberate attack on their cultural heritage. It becomes even more suspicious because little or no meaningful consultation was done during the drafting of the law,” she says.

Esther Somoire, who runs a children and women’s organisation in Magadi and who comes from an FGM practising community, the Masaai, echoes similar sentiments.

“The law is good and a welcome move but it will not be applied in very conservative Maasai or Somali communities. Do you really expect a Somali girl from a conservative family to report her father for violating her rights?” The law, Esther adds, will work if its complimented with serious efforts geared at changing attitudes. “Practising communities have to be made to realize, out of the confines of the law, that what they are doing is degrading women and has serious adverse health implications,” she says.

The experiences of other countries that have passed a similar law confirm Esther's concerns. In Uganda, for instance, the media have reported several communities, among them the Sabiny, Sebei and Pokot, organizing annual circumcision festivities in which hundreds of girls are initiated into womanhood even in the face of a law which prohibits such acts.

The persistence of the practice in Uganda led government and civil society to target the circumcisors themselves, who they presented with alternative ways of generating income as an incentive.

It is such innovations, coupled with the law, that will eventually send FGM into the dustbin of history, says Esther.

All hope is not lost, Zeituna urges, because “the law at least provides the first ammunition for would-be victims to stand firm, look in the eyes of the perpetrators and say no. If we have a chorus of ‘no’ from all countries that have outlawed the cut, maybe our voices will be loud enough to be heard and will in the end emerge winners.”

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Date: 31/10/2011




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