Why female genital mutilation persists

Monday May 9 2011


Two weeks ago, I had a chance to visit Loliondo, not for the magic healing cup (I would have loved to take it had the queue not been so long) but for a meeting with local civil society organisations to discuss issues of gender among the Maasai community.

As we discussed the various gender issues facing the community, it came out that girls’ circumcision remains a major one.

Several of the men said the practice is here to stay because it has an important role in the Maasai culture.

According to them, an uncircumcised girl will find it hard to prove that she is a woman and any children she bears will be seen as unclean.

In addition, the celebrations that come with the practice make the girls’ parents recognised as elders whose daughters have come of age and are ready for the next most important stages in their lives – marriage and child-bearing.

Those in strong defence of the practice felt that those advocating for its eradication have never taken time to understand why the community holds it dear.

It became apparent that the practice is more than just a cut, but a bigger community occasion where the family gets a chance to celebrate and the girl gets to be accepted by the others. In addition, a woman who is not cut will never be accepted even by her fellow women.

In Tanzania, they already have a law criminalising the practice but this has done little to stop it. I learnt that in this Loliondo community, girls are now circumcised when they are as young as five so that it is not known by the authorities.

The law-enforcers have, however, found a new cash-cow. They are on the loose checking if girls are circumcised.

Hence these young girls go through the double pain, being cut and then being checked by police to confirm their status.

The interest of the police is not to stop the practice but to extort hefty bribes from parents. Some of these can be as high as Tsh2 million depending on the economic status of the girls’ fathers.

These harrowing stories made me reflect on our own situation here regarding FGM.

A few years ago, a student carried out a research in some parts of Meru where he discovered that for parents to hide the practice from the authorities, they have resorted to circumcising girls before they are 10 for fear that once these girls are older, they may report their parents to the authorities or may even refuse to go through the ritual.

Female genital circumcision had its place in the traditional societies. All over the world people have practices that developed over the years and there were good reasons for each. However, even culture has to change with the times.

This brings me to the Bill currently in Parliament which proposes to outlaw FGM. I must say that I was deeply touched by the story of legislator Sophia Abdi who had the courage to talk about such a private and sensitive experience in order to show the importance of this Bill.

This incident went on to confirm the need for more women in Parliament who can use their experiences to help pass laws that affect women and girls.

On the law, however, there is a need to still go back to the communities to establish why this particular practice persists and work out the need for such a law and what they can do to change the practice.

Every practice has a reason and removing it without replacing it with something else may leave a vacuum that could bring other problems.

Dr Kamau is a gender specialist and senior lecturer at St Paul’s University.