By Christabel Ligami

Kaptele village, Kericho County of Rift Valley region in Kenya is where 22 women were recently arrested and charged for secretly undergoing Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), against the law.

Kaptele village

The women from the Kipsigis community of the Kalenjin tribe in Kenya were arrested on November 9 and released on November 22 after paying a USD 200 fine. But the main culprit – the circumciser Esther Soo who was also hosting the women – was jailed for one and a half years with no fine. The prosecution said she was a known circumciser in the area.

FGM practice of any kind has been outlawed in Kenya since 2011 because of the side effects it causes to women. But it is still secretly practised in some communities.

For the Kipsigis, it is an event usually conducted in December of every year when boys are also being circumcised. However, because of the COVID-19 pandemic that led to the closure of schools in the country since March, women circumcisers have been taking advantage of the situation to circumcise women secretly.

If a woman is not circumcised she is treated as a girl and not a woman. In that case, the uncircumcised woman is treated as an outsider/outcast. That means even if she is married they are not recognized as a wife

“For the Kipsigis community, circumcision for both men and women is conducted every December when schools are closed for the long holidays but because of the coronavirus, circumcision for both boys and girls was brought forward because there is more time for them to heal,” said Edwin Kimetto, member of Kipsigis Council of Elders.

Mzee Edwin Kimetto

Mary (not her real name), 32 years of age and a mother of three, was one of the women who was arrested. She says she has no regrets for undergoing the cut.

“I had to be circumcised because I have three boys who are 12, 13 and 14 years. I am planning to take care of my boys next year when they go to the forest for circumcision,” said Mary.

“I do not have money to pay other people to do it on my behalf because an uncircumcised woman is not allowed to take care of her circumcised boys when they are recovering in the bush. So I had no choice but to do this. Our culture should just be left the way it is.”

She said that they had stayed only for two days at the house of Ms Soo (the circumciser) after the cut then they were arrested by the police.

“This was very bad because I am a grown-up and I know what I want. I looked for the money to pay (USD 50) and even took myself to Ms Soo to be circumcised,” she said

“My husband had to sell a cow to pay for the fine. He has been very supportive because this is something he really wanted me to do. He is happy that I did it,” she said adding that everyone in the village is supporting her.

Mr Kimetto said it is sad that the women were involved in this practice and it is also sad that they were arrested. But it is not their mistake.

In the Kipsigis, he said, uncircumcised women are usually discriminated by other married women. The uncircumcised women are not be allowed to take part in any decision-making or sit around other women when a serious issue is being discussed.

He said that Kipsigis Women (mothers) play a peripheral role in the circumcision of their boys. After the boys’ circumcision, only their circumcised mothers are permitted to see them while being nursed in the bush and also only the circumcised women are permitted to cook for them.  This is the reason why most of the married women opt for the cut in preparation to take care of their circumcised sons.

“The boys’ circumcision is a major event and no mother wants to miss to be part of it,” he said.

If the mother is not circumcised and she goes ahead to prepare a meal for his circumcised son, Mr Kimetto said, as per the traditions, it is a big curse to the family that this can even lead to the death of the boy.

“To avoid problems to their families, if a mother knows that she is uncircumcised she is supposed to contract another mother at a fee of USD 150 to help her take care of the circumcised boy in the bush. This is too expensive to most families here and that’s why they choose to undergo the cut,” Mr Kimetto explained.

He said that circumcision also allows the mothers to have an authority in the community especially when decisions are being made.

“If a woman is not circumcised she is treated as a girl and not a woman. In that case, the uncircumcised woman is treated as an outsider/outcast. That means even if she is married they are not recognized as a wife,” said Mr Kimetto adding that just as for the men, the pain the women undergo during circumcision makes them strong enough to handle any challenges their families could have in the future.

John Soo, 70, husband of the jailed woman, the circumciser who was also taking care of the arrested women, said the wife didn’t break any law. She was just doing what the culture expects her to do.

Mr John Soo

“I am pleading with the government to release my wife. This is a woman who didn’t know she was doing something wrong, she didn’t even go to any nursery school, and she is illiterate. Kindly forgive her. She was arrested because she was just doing what she knows is right,” said Mr Soo.

“These women were all married. They just came for the cut because their men wanted them to do so. I have daughters who also underwent the practice a long time ago and they are happily married.”

Gladys (not her real name), 53 years of age, said she underwent the cut one year after getting married to make her husband happy and also she did not want to be discriminated by other women who were circumcised.

“I knew at some point I will have to be circumcised because it’s our culture. It is the only way you can feel you are a total woman,” said Gladys adding that as soon she got married they agreed with the husband to go for the cut which she gladly did.

She said that because she got married early before the age of 18 years, her parents did not have a chance to circumcise her.

“I think they knew that my husband will let me do it,” she said.

“I have five children. Three boys and two girls. I took care of my sons very well when they were circumcised without any problem. If you have not been circumcised you will have to get someone else to do it for you and pay. Where could I have got such money? We want female circumcision to be included in the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI).”

She said that all her daughters have been circumcised.

“It would be hard for them to get married if they had not been circumcised and for that reason, I would have been termed as an immoral woman for not circumcising my girls,” she said.

Frida Chepkemoi, Kericho-based FGM advocate and Head of Legal Transformers Community-Based Organization, said it is good the law is in place. Perhaps the penalties for anyone participating in FGM should be increased, looking at these 22 cases.

“The women were jailed for four months or an alternative fine of USD 200. This is an amount people can afford. People will see it as something not very serious. For people to take it seriously, the penalties should be very high to serve as a deterrence,” she said

Ms Chepkemoi said that it was shocking for many people to hear about the arrest of the women because this is an area of the Rift Valley where the majority of the people are educated. This is a clear indication that fighting FGM is not easy and there is still a long way to go to end it.

“Traditionally, FGM was seen as a way to tame girls, not to have multiple sexual partners. People are revisiting these cultures to limit the sexual urge of girls because they think girls are becoming wayward or misbehaving. They believe that fighting this sort of promiscuity, as they say, is to curb the sexual desires of women. But the men who do this do not understand the damage and effects associated with the cut,” she said

According to Ms Chepkemoi, this year there has seen a rise in FGM cases because of the long period girls have been at home and social media has helped in reporting the cases. It is easier and faster for people to report a case immediately through Twitter, WhatsApp and Facebook unlike before. But most of the cases still go unreported.

The Kipsigis culture, she said, values silence and respect to the culture and so it is a taboo to talk about FGM, leave alone condemning it.

“People take it seriously fearing for the repercussions. Leaders in the community have not come out to condemn this because they also fear they will lose support. Young men still don’t understand the consequences,” she said

David Kosgey, 33 years of age and married with two children, said that most Kipsigis men do not want their wives to be discriminated against by fellow women. It is a shame. The challenge is that an uncircumcised woman cannot nurse her own son who has been circumcised.

“We have to do as per our culture. Some women are kicked out of their houses and told to be circumcised first before going back. The elderly woman who has been jailed should be released otherwise those who arrested her will be cursed forever,” said Kosgey

Collins Cheruiyot, 26, said he is planning to get married soon but he can’t get married to a woman who has not been circumcised.

“I cannot marry someone who has not undergone this practice because if I get a boy child, who will cook for him when he is circumcised? Another woman? I cannot accept such. I also don’t want to be mocked by other men for marrying a woman not circumcised,” he said.

Mr Collins Cheruiyot

“What I would like to ask the government to do is to allow us to circumcise women who are beyond 18 years not children in school.”

Philomen Leting, a Gynecologist/Obstetrician in Kericho said in his private practice, he has handled the complications of FGM like fistula and complications during childbirth.

“Rarely do these women deliver their babies normally,” said Dr Leting adding that FGM of any type is bad and should be condemned.

“The circumcisers use unclean knives, razor blades, even sharp bottles, sharp metals and all these are dirty. It causes infections to these women that leads to severe bleeding and sepsis.”

The trauma the women undergo he said is too much to even think of and therefore it should be discouraged.

Kenya’s 2014 Demographics Survey shows that 21 per cent of women in the country were circumcised compared to 27 per cent in 2008 and 2009. In 2003, 32 per cent of Kenyan women were circumcised. Kisii, Maasai and Samuru communities are reported to still have the highest number of FGM cases.

The World Health Organization categories FGM into four types.

“The Kipsigis mostly do type 1 which is the removal of the clitoris. Some do type 2 which is the removal of the clitoris and labia minora. The one I have seen by the Pokots and Somalis is type 3 which is the removal of all the external genitalia. All these types are bad. All of them have long-term have side effects for a woman.”

Types of FGM
Source: WHO

The WHO describes FGM as, “The partial or total removal of the female external genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons”.

“It is a deeply rooted tradition in many communities in 28 countries in Africa and in some countries in Asia and the Middle East.”

Apart from the Kipsigis community in Kenya, the Maasai, Samburu, Gikuyu, Somali, Abagusii and the Kalenjins traditionally practised FGM.

Kenya outlawed FGM partially in 2001 and completely banned it in 2011. According to the law, women found indulging in the practice are arrested and jailed for nine years or fined USD 6,000. This has led to a decrease in the number of FGM cases in the country.

Kenya’s 2014 Demographics Survey shows that 21 per cent of women in the country were circumcised compared to 27 per cent in 2008 and 2009. In 2003, 32 per cent of Kenyan women were circumcised. Kisii, Maasai and Samuru communities are reported to still have the highest number of FGM cases.

Even though Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta pledged to end FGM by 2022, Kericho-based advocate Chepkemoi says more needs to be done and that it is impossible that FGM will end in the communities that practice it, by 2022.

United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) data shows that approximately 21 per cent of women in Kenya aged 15 – 49 years have undergone some form of FGM.

“There is a need for education and public awareness both about the anti-FGM law and the dangers of FGM practice in every part of the country, especially among those who practice it. This is the only way the government will win its fight against the practice,” said Ms Chepkemoi.

 

Christabel Ligami is an independent journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya. She reports on gender, science/health, business, development, environment, climate change issues in Africa. Her work has been broadly published in the EastAfrican Newspaper, CNN, The Lancet HIV publication, United Nations Africa Renewal , Equal Times, University World News, Climate Home News among others. She has a Bachelor’s of Science degree in Biochemistry and a Masters in Communication Studies.

Featured image by Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images

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