To commemorate International Day of the Girl Child 2022, influential leaders from the Maasai community from Kenya and Tanzania will unite in Taita-Taveta County to discuss a long-term strategy to enhance efforts against Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in both countries. This action represents a breakthrough in FGM for the Maasai, an ethnic group that has been practicing the practice for centuries. There is the hope that solutions will emerge to support the repression of the deadly action in the region.
FGM is a procedure involving the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia for non-medical reasons. Rather than a clinical practice that brings upon health benefits, it does the opposite, causing severe pain, bleeding, fever, infections, shock and even death. As of 2022, according to data available from 30 countries where people practice FGM in the Western, Eastern and North-Eastern regions of Africa and some countries in the Middle East and Asia, more than 200 million females alive today have experienced the practice. Furthermore, there are more than 3 million girls that estimates have estimated are at risk of the practice annually.
FGM in Maasai Communities
The Maasai are a semi-nomadic community located in Kenya and Tanzania. Their population is estimated to be 900,000 individuals and they migrate in search of pasture and water for their animals.
According to a Maasai myth, FGM began in the community when a girl named Napei had sexual intercourse with a family enemy. To punish her and suppress the desires that influenced her to commit the act, she underwent FGM. Since then, every Maasai girl reaching adolescence has undergone it s a way to restrict sexual desire and promiscuity. The ceremony itself is a large annual celebration for all the girls who reach adolescence during the year. Groups of girls aged between 12 and 14 undergo the practice by traditional ‘circumcisers’ or experienced elderly women. They use a sharp instrument known as a ‘ormurunya’ (a sharpened knife) before they apply a paste of cow dung and milk fat to stop any bleeding.
After the ceremony, the girls go into isolation where they learn their duties and responsibilities as women. They then return to the Maasai community, where others then perceive them as fully grown women capable of marrying. By undergoing FGM, Maasai girls bring honor, respect and dignity to both themselves and their families.
FGM Legislation in Kenya and Tanzania
Due to its lack of health benefits, people internationally recognized FGM as a violation of the human rights of girls and women. It reflects deep-rooted sexual inequality while being an extreme form of discrimination against them. Despite being widespread amongst the Maasai, over the last 20 years, Kenya and Tanzania have made breakthroughs in FGM legislation, showing their condemnation of the practice.
In 1998, the Sexual Offences Special Provisions Act (SOSPA) passed, criminalizing and punishing the performance of FGM on girls under the age of 18 years. The punishment for breaking the law was between zero and 15 years of imprisonment, along with “a fine of 300,000 Tanzanian shillings.”
Following this, the Ministry of Health, Community Development, Gender, Elderly and Children announced a five-year National Plan of Action to End Violence Against Women and Children between 2017-2022. An improvement from the 1998 Act, which only imprisoned those that carried out FGM, the National Plan tackles eight specific areas which involve women and girls, and FGM. These are:
- The strengthening of household economics
- Social values and norms
- The promotion of safe environments
- Parental and family support
- The enforcement of law
- Support services
- Promotion of safe schools
In October 2011, the government passed the Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act. The Act itself prohibited the practice of FGM while safeguarding against the violation of a person’s mental/physical integrity. It established a board whose functions were to:
- Design, supervise and coordinate public awareness programs.
- Advise the government on matters related to FGM.
- Design and formulate policies on the planning, financing and coordinating of activities related to FGM.
- Provide technical support to institutions engaged in programs aimed at FGM eradication.
Kenya also criminalized the practice with a minimum punishment of three years imprisonment and a 242,800 shilling fine.
While the legislation passed in Kenya and Tanzania against FGM, coupled with increased awareness around its harmful effects have helped to reduce prevalence rates, the deep-rooted practice still remains as communities discover new ways to avoid persecution. Cross-border FGM within Maasai communities remains across Kenya- Tanzania borders, and it is increasingly present in Kenya and Uganda.
However, the ascension of the Maasai leaders in Taita-Taveta County represents a breakthrough in FGM amongst their community. It constitutes a new and optimistic future for the eradication of the practice. Country commissioner Loyford Kibaara stated how “this dialogue is timely” and that all key stakeholders will be involved in the matter to help design strategies to “contain the outdated practice.” With a focus on the social norms, values and attitudes which revolve around FGM, the discussion reflects a large breakthrough in FGM for the Maasai, bringing hope that their traditional beliefs can change.
– Harkiran Bharij