The conversation around the practice of FGM has to change!

26 year old woman from Musenke, Magadi ( Photo from my media Library)

Why am I saying this?

Seventy odd days have passed since the year 2017 began and reflecting on the past years campaigns against FGM and early marriages, it is true that all who are involved have walked a long distance. There have been moments where the campaign may have faltered and made missteps but also some significant progress has been registered. In the course of writing and campaigning as well as visiting various communities across the country where FGM is practiced, I can attest that activists are increasingly encountering subtle resistance.
A revisionist movement is slowly but surely pushing the envelope, challenging some of the long held reasons advanced in campaigns against FGM as well as approaches that seem not to fit with their local context. As such the conversation at the national level is not yielding much needed results at the community level.

How is this possible, given the resources that are being channeled and renewed vigor among activists? Just to illustrate this, sometime in 2016 during an event dubbed the Maasai 7s event in Kajiado, a group of elite young men from universities; The Maasai Students Association, revealed to me that they still encourage and uphold the practice of FGM citing that their work involves moving around schools encouraging girls to continue with school after the practice. Many activists would contend that this is a big fat lie because the fact on the ground is that FGM among the Maasai prepares a woman mentally for marriage and there is very little chance that the girl will pursue education after the cut!

Another illustration relates to a separate visit, to Garissa where the FGM prevalence stands at 97%. Here the recurring challenge arising relates to the notion that somehow FGM affects child births. During community conversations, I have heard many women dispute the health effects of the practice citing that they have actually been able to give birth to many children despite the cut! One woman from Garissa told me that she underwent type 3 form of FGM (infubilation) and she prides in the birth of her 10 children. According to Kenneth Odary of Research Triangle Africa (RTA), such uninformed sentiments coupled with official statistics that reveal that there is indeed a higher birth rate and population growth diminish the credibility of some long held facts on the dangers of FGM.

Another recent illustration coming barely a week is, while in Narok during a youth forum where a young man from the group stood up and insisted that his two daughters will go through FGM and that until someone gives him better reasons why he should not, he was not going to defy his culture to impress anyone. Baffling as he sounded, he represents a majority out here!

These are but few examples of the subtle resistance and revisionist statements that activists have to contend with while in the field. Such is the dilemma, which in many private conversations has been suggestions for a holistic approach which not only tackles the known health and social-cultural issues but also frames them within the broader social economic and political context.

For instance, recently there was a voter registration exercise that took place in Kenya and various political factions were competing to register voters. Unknown to some of these groups is that only a third of women who currently comprise over half the population of Kenya are registered to vote! This is largely as a result of many women lacking the crucial national identity card as result of being forced into early marriages common with girls who have undergone FGM but also dropped out of school.

According to Kenneth Odary, this implies that in Kenya’s tribal driven politics, communities practicing FGM are deprived of the critical numbers needed to bargain for power and resources at the National level. Besides, given their low level of education attainment, such women may be unable to countenance the importance of voting as their democratic right enshrined in our constitution even upon attaining the age of maturity. As such the political class ought to be targeted as part of anti-FGM campaigns and sold a different narrative which serves both their personal ambitions and community interests!

Politics aside, women’s pursuit of their socio-economic rights is largely hampered as a result of harmful cultural practices of FGM and early marriages. For instance, In Kenya, without a national identity card, a woman can be deprived of the opportunity to access affirmative action funds made available by government such as the youth fund, women’s fund and Uwezo fund.

This against a backdrop where research has continuously shown that women in Kenya have demonstrated greater fiducial responsibility with regards to micro-finance loans. In the same token, in a world where digital presence has become the norm, a woman without her national ID cannot register for a simple mobile phone sim card! Which in the current setting is more than just a communication tool.

In this regard, activists ought to generate data that appeals to micro-finance institutions, banks and mobile money companies and therefore walk hand in hand in anti FGM campaigns.

In addition, access to health while it remains a right is also compromised if one cannot access the National Health Insurance Fund as a result of lacking a national identity card. Besides, without an ID, women are less likely to own property especially during succession matters. Lack of an ID also inhibits their ability to engage in business not forgetting movement within and out of Kenya! As such many women as a result of underage marriages occasioned by FGM remain marginalized and trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty or what Eva Komba, a Gender and Development Specialist, describes as feminization of poverty. Thereby a woman who is poor is unlikely to better the life of her own children. Thus activists must purpose to fate their strategies and approaches along gender and sustainable development processes locally, nationally and globally.

These examples here are but a fraction of the numerous doses of reality that relate to the women at the community level that can be generated to re-energize the anti FGM crusade and make it more holistic. Thus funding for activities need to strategically shift from arguments about why FGM is wrong published in little fact sheets distributed during conferences to the broader socio economic and political impact of this practice.

Linkages should be made between the anti-FGM campaigns and development strategies such as Kenya’s vision 2030, Planet 50/50, Agenda 2063 and the sustainable development goals (SDG). According to Kenneth Odary, linking FGM to national, regional and global priorities that men care about may be what is needed to overcome some of the harmful cultural practices.

While on his tour in Kenya, UN General Secretary, Antonio Guterres, reminded the world, during International Women’s Day and simultaneous launch of the AU campaign to end child/forced marriage that no country will achieve its full development agenda without full integration of women and girls!

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