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Could FGM make a comeback in Kenya?

February 5, 2018

Many African countries have made great strides in tackling Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting. Kenya, however, has seen a backlash as a doctor pushes for continuing the practice as part of 'heritage' in a court bid.

A woman holding a knife used for FGM (photo: picture alliance/dpa/EPA/UNICEF/HOLT)
Image: picture alliance/dpa/EPA/UNICEF/HOLT

"Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is our heritage, banning FGM is straying away from our African roots," these are the words that Tatu Kamau, a female doctor who has been practicing for 26 years, uttered when she left a busy courtroom in Machakos county near Kenya's capital Nairobi.

Kamau went to court last month to push for FGM to be legalized. She argues women should be allowed to be cut under the supervision of a medical practitioner. Kenya outlawed the practice of FGM in 2011.

"I am asking for this act to be removed so that it is legal for us to practice our culture," Kamau said. "Once the act is removed we will be able to do it in the best possible way — one of the ways being medicalization."

Many doctors have been arrested after they had cut girls illegally.

Kamau said women should be able to choose to undergo the practice.

Read more: Raising FGM awareness in Africa

"The children act can continue to protect girls so that the child is not put under undue pressure," she said, adding "once you reach adulthood, there should be no reason why you can't make the decision."

In Kenya, about a quarter of women and girls aged 15 to 49 have been cut, according to the Kenyan Ministry of Health. About 30 percent of 20- to 24-year-old women were cut when they were as young as five years old and couldn't speak for themselves.

Strong backlash in Kenya and elsewhere

"Most people who support FGM want to push forth this idea that having FGM in a hospital is okay, but the effects are still the same, even if it is performed in hospitals," said lawyer Sofia Rajab Leteipan.

"The risks are still the same, there is actually no health benefit at all for women undergoing FGM. It causes a lot of danger to their health, even death."

Many Kenyans took to Social Media to voice their criticism.

Slow change in society

In Senegal's south, Dieynaba Sow watches as her two daughters and her son play in front of her hut. Just one and a half years ago, the 33-year-old still cut into girls' vaginas.

"I learned this from my mother who learned this from her mother," she told DW.

Dieynaba Sow (photo: DW)
Dieynaba Sow talks to correspondent Mamadou Lamine BaImage: DW

Even though Senegal banned the practice in 1999, the job of cutting girls came with great respect for Sow and her family. It just goes to show that it's difficult to stop a tradition by changing laws only.

It took a long time and several women in her village to convince Sow to abandon the practice. Her two daughters, aged four and six, have not been cut.

"There are six girls in our neighborhood and none of them have been circumcised," she said.

"Women don't just lose income, they also lose their standing in society," said Renate Staudenmeyer of human rights organization Terre des Femmes. That's why it's important also to provide alternative means of livelihoods to actually help end FGM.

She says proposals such as the one currently discussed in Kenya are harmful.

"It downplays the structural violence behind the practice," she told DW. "It's an extreme form of violence that's performed on girls."

There's a broad spectrum of FGM awareness within Africa, Staudenmeyer added. In Sierra Leone, for instance, there is no legal ban on the practice and women cutting girls are still highly respected within society. That makes change particularly hard, she said.

Going backwards 

Meanwhile, Kenyans continue to voice their criticism of the "doctor" fighting in court.

Kenya's Machakos High Court is expected to hear the case about removing the ban on FGM at the end of February.

"We only make laws for things that are harmful," said former lawmaker and anti-FGM board chair member Linah Jebii Kilimo, adding "even if it is our culture."

"Dr. Kamau wants to take us back to yesteryears while our own constitution says the culture of Kenya is a cumulation to the civilization of the people of Kenya."

Andrew Wasike, Friederike Müller and Mamadou Lamine Ba contributed to this report.

Sarah Steffen Sarah works as radio host and producer, reporter and editor.