In 1983, when the President of Kenya placed a ban on this practice, the elders of some of the districts, in obvious defiance, issued a statement that female circumcision is a cultural prerogative of the tribe, and central Government had no business telling them to stop it. Indeed, when the head of state visited the district soon after, he did not bring up the issue.

A motion seeking to ban female circumcision was defeated in the Kenyan parliament on November 13, 1996

The reality is that fifty per cent of Kenyan women have undergone circumcision. In some areas this percentage is as high as 95 per cent and, as much as 50% of the women were operated on when they were aged between 10 and 15 years old.

Female circumcision is today discussed at international and national forums as a violation of human rights and as inimical to female reproductive health. Yet, to a considerable number of people in countries where FGM is practiced, the argument for its continuation is that the practice is a traditional cultural rite of passage. Precisely, it is by virtue of it being a rite of passage that circumcision results in most harm. It passes off young girls into adulthood and others into marriage when they are psychologically and physically not ready for it.

Circumcision of girls makes them feel grown up, and they have no qualms having sexual relations with adult men, and grown men also view them as mature women, ready for sexual relationships. In areas where girls are circumcised there are higher rates of teenage pregnancy and school drop outs. Teachers report that there is a noticeable drop in school performance soon after circumcision (Family Planning Association of Kenya).

A majority of Kenyans will agree that female circumcision is no longer a necessity, that it greatly affects the status and development of girls and women, and that it is a reproductive and human rights issue. But, it is still a cultural practice and some communities are not ready to abandon it yet.

It is with this understanding of this sensitive nature of the topic that Family Planning Association of Kenya (FPAK), Programme for Appropriate Technology in Health (PATH) and Maendeleo, undertook a study to establish reasons for its persistence and to identify families who no longer practice circumcision in order to learn from them.

Research findings by FPAK PATH and Maendeleo
The term female circumcision was consciously chosen instead of female genital mutilation (FGM) because this term connotes malice. But when you talk to even those families who still practice female circumcision, no one intentionally wants to harm their daughters. "We use the words female circumcision to avoid antagonising people and because it is the term most people understand anyway," Joyce Ikiara, Assistant Programme Officer at Maendeleo.

An uncircumcised girl fetches a lower bride price. In all the communities where the practice persists, bride price, is deeply entrenched and a girl who refuses to be circumcised is a threat to the would-be wealth her father expects on her marriage. We know of cases where girls have been ostracised by their parents for refusing to be circumcised.

"Only 62% of girls with secondary education were circumcised, compared to 96% of those with no education."

FPAK feels that girls should be targeted with information about the practice, and given the confidence to say "no". An uncircumcised girl is likely to be taunted by her family, friends, school mates and young boys. But when armed with information and some formal education she can withstand the pressure as statistics show.

"Female circumcision prepares girls for responsible married life", is one of the arguments for the practice of female circumcision. Girls who are not circumcised, it is argued, are immoral, make rude wives and daughters-in-law. In some communities it is drummed into the girls' head right from a tender age that no man will marry an uncircumcised girl.

The need for sustained community-based education to eradicate female circumcision. While doing their research these organisations undertook community education and information to ensure that individuals at community level appreciate why circumcision must be discarded. Starting with opinion leaders, health workers, teachers, men women and children all are given information during seminars, public meetings, and through specially selected and trained village level 'gender educators'.

An alternative to circumcision: tradition, and the way forward
After giving people information PATH members discussed at length with the community what they felt would be a suitable alternative, especially in those communities where the practice did not necessarily lead to marriage. When girls are circumcised, they go into seclusion. Each girl has the equivalent of a godmother, who holds her during the operation, takes care of her to make sure she heals properly. It is these 'godmothers' who teach the girls what it means to be an adult, especially in marriage. At the end of the seclusion period which could be seven days for school going girls or two months for those who are to be married off soon after, there is a colourful community celebration, with a lot of feasting and dancing, and the girls are showered with gifts by their parents and relatives.

This alternative ceremony has been promoted to allow the community and the girls to go through all the steps except the actual operation. In addition some education skills have been imparted to the 'godmothers' so that, during the seclusion period, the girls receive information about how to face the challenge of adolescence. They are taught how their bodies work, and about relationships, responsible sexual behaviour, and conception .

Is the battle against female circumcision being won?
Although not all areas have accepted this alternative ceremony, the changes are significant and encouraging:

  • female circumcision was not a subject people talked about, but villagers who have undergone the educational program discuss openly the merits and demerits of the practice, the issue has become a public debate

  • an impressive number of former circumcisers have denounced their profession and are now strong community educators

  • girls have started to write to PATH and FPAK, asking for assistance because they have decided, against family pressure, not to undergo the operation

  • women have formed groups, and role models publicly declare they are not circumcised, while health worker discuss it with patients in public meetings

  • the use of slang among young men shows a change in attitudes: an uncircumcised girl is referred to as a manyanga ( Swahili for young, new), while a circumcised one is nicknamed mitumba (second hand, or used)

  • for the first time in churches, preachers are talking about female circumcision during baptism, and this is very encouraging (FPAK).

    'The more girls are educated the more they will be in a position to make their own choices'
    . FPAK, Maendeleo, and PATH are optimistic as far as discouraging circumcision goes, but realise it will take a long time.

Source:  "Ending the Mutilation", People & the Planet, Vol.6, No.1, 1997 by Isabel Mbugua,