Growing up, Tony Mwebia never thought that he would find himself campaigning against female genital mutilation (FGM).
Thirty-year-old Tony was born and bred in Kinoro Village, South Imenti, Meru County, and even though he comes from a community that practices FGM, he never saw it as a big issue. It was part of the culture.
However, working with humanitarian aid organisations that assist refugees changed his mind. While working on a pilot project by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) to sensitise urban refugees on the Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act that was passed in 2011, he started reading books and watching FGM videos so that he could moderate community dialogues for men and women from Somalia, Ethiopia, DR Congo and Rwanda.
He held discussions with refugees from Congo and Rwanda living in Kayole in Nairobi. The Rwandese talked of gukuna imishino or guca imyeyo or labia elongation, which is pulling the labia minora outward to stretch it and make it longer than the labia majora.
Doctors claimed that this had no effects, but researchers had found that it made girls uncomfortable when walking or answering the call of nature.
In Eastleigh, men from Somalia shared heart-rending experiences on what FGM had done to their loved ones.
One man had lost his wife and baby during childbirth. His wife had undergone a type of FGM called infibulation (cutting out the clitoris, inner and outer labia and sewing up the vulva together, leaving only a small hole for urine and menses) which caused obstructed labour and the traditional birth attendant was not able to intervene.
Women who have undergone infibulation are more likely to suffer from prolonged and obstructed labour, sometimes resulting in foetal death and/or obstetric fistula.
Other men said they couldn’t enjoy sex as the cut woman found it too painful, and they had to look for ‘uncut’ sexual partners. Some had wives with fistula and other health complications.
The community dialogues were successful and after that Tony got a job with the government to work on children’s rights in Kuria in 2013. There he came face to face with FGM during the cutting season in 2014.
“There was singing and dancing in the open and during the day, despite the ban. It was a big ceremony,” he recalls.
Knowing what he did about the harmful effects of FGM, the fanfare prompted him to start a social media campaign calling men to help end FGM. He hopes to rally policymakers and other stakeholders to ensure that men are engaged in the fight against FGM by sharing their experiences with FGM.
The challenge is that female activists are yet to fully accept that men can effectively sensitise women and girls (and their fellow men) on matters FGM.
“When it comes to resources and training, men are put on the back burner, yet the fight needs us all,” he says.
Having been at it for seven years now, he believes that boys and men have a big role to play and that religious leaders, who are mostly male, can tap into their influence to help end the cut among their followers.
For 36-year-old Parsanka Sayianka, curiosity about FGM was aroused as a schoolboy in Elangata Olkaputei Village in Kajiado County. When he started school in 1991, there were as many boys as girls in class. Then after Standard Four, girls started dropping out and by Standard Eight, there were almost no girls left in school. It was a niggling puzzle that he managed to solve after primary school. He realised that his classmates were undergoing female genital mutilation and getting married thereafter.
“That realisation made me hate FGM and I vowed that I would only marry a girl who had not been circumcised.” Parsanka went on to study telecommunications engineering at the Kenya College of Communications and Technology (now Multimedia University), but had to stay out of college for two years after drought hit his pastoralist family hard, decimating their herds of livestock.
Although he got a scholarship that enabled him complete his studies, it did not escape him that his family’s resources were in the hands of one man, while the family affairs of his immediate neighbours seemed to be run by women who had gone to school.
“The women survived on the proceeds of charcoal burning and were able to do much better (in my estimation) than our family which was wealthier. Their children had a varied menu, while we survived on milk. They had nice clothes, while we wore blankets. They seemed happier and it got me thinking that cutting our girls and marrying them off was doing them a disservice, and not just them, but the entire community. I realised that I had to join the fight against FGM,” he recalls.
Later, he met Josephine from the Rendille community in Marsabit County, which also practices FGM as a rite of passage.
“When I proposed marriage, she told me that she had to be cut first before marriage. But the thing was I wanted to marry her because she was from a circumcising community, but had remained uncut.”
Parsanka gave an ultimatum – he would only marry Josephine if she skipped the cut. Traditional marriage rites began, but Parsanka’s father told him that he would not accept an uncircumcised daughter-in-law.
“My prospective father-in-law told me that he could give me the girl for free (without paying any bride price) as long as I allowed him to do what is right – have her cut. I declined and paid all the cows by force to show them that their daughter was valuable as she was – uncut,” he says.
And so Parsanka and his wife began a life of social ostracisation by their families and fellow villagers. At one point he tried to negotiate with a traditional “surgeon” from his village to do something that would signify to the community that Josephine had undergone the cut, if only to take away the stigma. But the circumciser refused. It had to be the real cut or nothing.
Luckily, their parents have since changed their position on female circumcision and are now the greatest supporters of Parsanka’s work of changing community attitudes to FGM.
“Through my example, everybody in that village now knows that a girl who has not been cut can be married,” he says.
Over the years, Parsanka has worked with different organisations to fight FGM and advocate for the empowerment of women and girls in Oloitoktok, Kajiado County. He joined the County Government of Kajiado in 2017 under the governor’s delivery unit on women empowerment initiatives and persuaded colleagues to localise the Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act.
The county government has incorporated the act into county laws and included the responsibility of educating the community and eradicating the practice in the county’s agenda, complete with the requisite resources.
“FGM is a cultural practice. We have legal instruments that criminalise the vice, but the impact of those laws is minimal, because you cannot criminalise a culture. What these laws have done is talk about crime, penalties and formation of the Anti-FGM Board, but we don’t see any attempt to educate, prevent and persuade people to abandon FGM. We established a structure that will form a policy that will suit the implementation of the law within the context of Kajiado County,” says Parsanka.
The process of domesticating the act in Kajiado began with sensitising male Members of the County Assembly, by showing them a graphic FGM film.
Now, they have moved on to schools and female circumcisers. The latter are offered an alternative source of income if they agree to stop cutting girls and denounce the practice in public.
Reporting for this story was supported by Code4Africa, EachRights and The Girl Generation as part of the Born Perfect Project
Types of FGM:
Female genital mutilation (FGM) includes procedures that intentionally alter female genital organs by partial or total removal of external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for cultural or other non-medical reasons.
- Type 1: Clitoridectomy is the partial or total removal of the clitoris (a small, sensitive and erectile part of the female genitals), and in very rare cases, only the prepuce (the fold of skin surrounding the clitoris).
- Type 2: Excision is the partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora (the inner folds of the vulva), with or without excision of the labia majora (the outer folds of skin of the vulva).
- Type 3: Infibulation is the narrowing of the vaginal opening through the creation of a covering seal. The seal is formed by cutting and repositioning the labia minora, or labia majora, sometimes through stitching, with or without removal of the clitoris (clitoridectomy).
- Type 4: all other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes, e.g. pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterising the genital area.
- Severe pain
Excessive bleeding (haemorrhage)
- Genital tissue swelling
- Infections e.g. tetanus
- Urinary problems
- Wound healing problems
- Injury to surrounding genital tissue
Urinary problems: painful urination, urinary tract infections
- Vaginal problems: discharge, itching, bacterial vaginosis and other infections
- Menstrual problems: painful menstruation, difficulty in passing menstrual blood, etc.
- Scar tissue and keloid
- Sexual problems: pain during intercourse, decreased satisfaction, etc.
- Increased risk of childbirth complications: difficult delivery, excessive bleeding, Caesarean section, need to resuscitate the baby and newborn deaths.
- Need for later surgeries: for example, a woman who underwent infibulation needs to be cut open later to allow for sexual intercourse and childbirth (deinfibulation). Sometimes genital tissue is stitched again several times, including after childbirth, hence the woman goes through repeated opening and closing procedures, further increasing both immediate and long-term risks.
- Psychological problems: depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, low self-esteem, etc.
SOURCE: WORLD HEALTH ORGANISATION
GRAPHIC: MICHAEL MOSOTA @micnyams