The World Health Organization (WHO) defines female genital mutilation (FGM) as “all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.” The WHO highlights that FGM is a violation of human rights and holds no health benefits for females. Instead, it causes health complications such as excessive bleeding, infections, urinary issues and even death. In countries such as Kenya, the practice is prevalent among communities. UNICEF reported in 2021 that about 4 million females have undergone female genital mutilation in Kenya. Additionally, with the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic, cases of female genital mutilation in Kenya have risen even further. The Constitution of Kenya entrenches women’s and children’s rights to good health and protection from acts of abuse or detrimental cultural practices.
Young Girls at Risk
In Kenya, the genital mutilation procedure occurs at various ages and certain ethnic groups conduct the procedure after a girl turns 15. Other communities perform the procedure on girls as young as 9 or 10. Concern Worldwide says Kenyan girls choose to undergo this risky procedure “in order to maintain their social standing and, eventually, improve their chances of a good marriage.”
The risk for FGM across Kenya tends to be higher in rural areas and among poorer and less educated households. According to The Conversation, girls in Kenya often undergo female genital mutilation during school holiday periods. Due to the long absence from school, girls have more “time to heal from the procedure without scrutiny.” At the end of the school year, schools in Kenya close for roughly two months.
Abolishing Female Genital Mutilation in Kenya
In 2011, Kenya’s government outlawed FGM. The Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act (2011) passed on September 30, 2011, making FGM a criminal offense in Kenya. Courts punish incidents of FGM through a three-year jail sentence, a $2,000 fine or both. In the event that an FGM procedure leads to mortality, the offender will be subject to life imprisonment.
Despite the legislation, FGM is a deeply entrenched tradition that continues today. The Orchid Project explains that “Implementation and enforcement of the national law remain a challenge, due to lack of resources and difficulty accessing remote rural areas. Judges are reluctant to apply the sentences provided for in the law and sentences are regularly reduced or quashed on appeal.”
Alternative Rites of Passage
Founded in 1952, Maendeleo ya Wanawake Organisation (MYWO) is a nonprofit organization in Kenya that aims to improve women’s economic, social and political status in Kenya. MYWO promotes alternative rites of passage (ARP), which respect indigenous cultures and the traditional initiation process but without the need for physical cutting of the genitalia.
MYWO first introduced ARP with the support of the Programme for Alternative Technology in Health (PATH) in 1996 in the Meru community in Kenya, encouraging 30 households to conduct alternative forms of ceremonies to celebrate a child’s passage into womanhood without the need for genital mutilation.
With the introduction of ARP, between 2009 and 2019, FGM prevalence rates declined by 24.2% to a prevalence of 56.6%. Widespread replacement of genital cutting with ARP will lead to prevalence rates dropping even further. Educating communities will aid in protecting the well-being of girls and women.
Over the past decade, the prevalence of female genital mutilation has fallen. By continuing efforts to end FGM in Kenya, organizations uphold the human rights of girls and women.
– Yv Maciel