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Africa

The challenge of eradicating FGM among Kenya's Maasai

The practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) is widely condemned. However, Kenya's Maasai want to retain it. They say it is an important part of their culture and women who do not undergo it lack authority later.

The cutter uses a razor, a pair of scissors or a knife. The tools are rarely disinfected and the victim is given nothing to deaden the excruciating pain as her labia and clitoris are removed. The cutter then sews up the wound. What remains is a small hole through which to pass urine - and lifelong physical and mental pain.

Such scenes are played out daily, especially on the Horn of Africa, in the Middle East and in Asia. According to women's rights organisation Terre des Femmes, the highest rate of female genital mutilation is in Somalia where up to 98 percent of women aged between 19 and 49 have undergone FGM. In neighboring Ethiopia and Sudan the rate far exceeds 70 percent. The World Health Organisation estimates that at least 150 million women worldwide are victims of the practice. Every year three million girls join the list.

FGM and Maasai culture

In Kajiado, a remote village in southern Kenya, most women still believe that undergoing FGM is the key to success in all aspects of life. Kenya banned FGM in 2011, but the example of Kajiado begs the question: Is Kenya really winning the battle?

Police recently raided a house in Kajiado and arrested four women. They had just undergone FGM and wore strings on their legs as a sign to the community of their new status. The four were all married but claimed that they were not happy because they had not previously undergone FGM.

A group of Maasai in traditional dress Getty Images/AFP/S. Maina

Kenya's Maasai have moved with the times but still retain some of their traditional beliefs

In Kenya it is a crime to voluntarily seek, aid or promote FGM. However, this is not the first time that adult women have been arrested for voluntarily seeking the razor blade. Despite the anti-FGM campaign, the massive sensitization and the arrests, the women of Kajiado still see things differently.

One villager put it like this: "We are pleading with the government to allow us to engage in our traditional practices. It is a very big problem for our girls because if they just sit at home without being circumcised, they will not get a husband and will not be educated. They will just stay at home."

59-year old Naserian said that, according to Maasai culture, an uncircumcised woman will bring death to the family. To avoid this, she says, the Maasai should be allowed to continue with FGM. "If our girls are not circumcised, that is bad news for the family. According to our culture, both the father and mother will die."

The Maasai believe that it is only after undergoing FGM that a girl is considered to be a woman. As 36 year-old Naipanoi told DW, a 14 year-old circumcised Maasai girl has more authority than a 60 year-old uncircumcised woman who is regarded as a young girl.

FGM supporters believe that the practice reduces infidelity and prevents HIV and Aids. "Those who are not circumcised have a habit of going from one man to another but a circumcised woman will stick to one partner. She won't do anything even if the husband passes away, she won't chase after other men." Kajiado resident Loiyan said.

A young girl is smeared with white paint after being circumcised REUTERS/Siegfried Modola

Kenya's Pokot people also still practise FGM. This young girl has just been cut and is now the focus of ritual acts

FGM as grounds for asylum?

Lina Jebii, chair of the Kenyan Anti-Female Genital Mutilation Board, says that there have been several protests in Kajiado since the ban came in 2011. The strong support for FGM came as a shock to Kobia Kamau, Kajiado's County Commissioner, who had thought progress was being made. "I have not heard of any other community trying to protect the FGM practice in this manner, this is unusual. We need to do more consultation with the leaders," Jebii said.

The last community FGM meeting in Kajiado was held in 2015; over 1,000 women turned out to protect their culture.

Women who do not share the Maasai view and flee to Europe because they fear they will be subjected to FGM can apply for asylum, Sophie Forrez from the Belgian legal advice body Intact said in an interview with DW, as the imminent threat of FGM is regarded as persecution. However, many of the women who make the long and dangerous journey are not aware of this, says Linda Ederberg from Terre des Femmes. In addition, the EU asylum authorities differentiate between women who have been subjected to FGM and those who flee before it it is done to them. "If FGM has already been carried out, this does not count as grounds for asylum," Ederberg told DW. Forrez sees this as a grey area in EU asylum law.

Theresa Krinninger contributed to this article.

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