Religious leaders fight mutilation

The decision by Muslim religious leaders in northeastern Kenya to talk about the dangers of female genital mutilation (FGM) during Friday prayers has turned into a significant campaign against the practice.

"We have managed to educate people and convince many parents, including those with strong traditional beliefs, that circumcising girls is not a requirement in Islam," said Sheikh Harun Rashid of Isiolo Rahma Mosque.

"Our first assignment was to inform the parents that the holy book [Quran] teaches that the painful act is not an obligation; it is a tradition and not a religious obligation," he told IRIN in Isiolo.

The campaign, which started in a small way 10 years ago, is now spearheaded by the Muslim Council of Imams and Preachers of Kenya. It still relies heavily on teachings delivered during Friday prayers, to reach the large Muslim populations in northeastern Kenya. More than 30 Mosques exist in Isiolo and Garissa towns alone, and the campaign has been extended to the coastal province as well.

"Our approach is different and cheap, unlike those [workshops] done in hotels," Rashid added. "Our simple campaigns by imams and Islamic schoolteachers are mainly conducted on Friday when large numbers of Muslims attend weekly prayers so we convince many."

According to council officials, the campaign has now spread across northeastern and parts of eastern provinces.

"Islam is very clear; no part of our bodies should be removed or changed. Only boys are supposed to be cut," explained Sheikh Mohamed Abdi from nearby Garissa, the largely Muslim capital of northeastern region.

"Parents from Somali and Borana tribes subjected their daughters to the cruel act because they were misled to believe it was a religious obligation," he added. "The practice has done a lot of damage to our girls - depriving many of an interest in sex - an important leisure [activity] which Allah gave to all human beings."

FGM was also linked with many divorces as a result of sexual dissatisfaction, Abdi added.

Some agreed. Fatuma Mohamed, who divorced her husband because he claimed she could not satisfy him sexually, blamed her plight on FGM, saying it damaged her permanently. Now she sells ’miraa’ - a popular narcotic plant - to make ends meet and take care of her two daughters.

"I was very young, but still remember the day I was circumcised," she told IRIN in Isiolo. "It was cruel and caused the end of my marriage. I vowed the same will not be done to my two daughters."

Her friend and business partner, Zainab Noor, disagreed, however. "The practice was introduced to protect our girls," she said. "Whoever is opposing it is evil. The community should fight any attempts to introduce immorality."

A young girl at Garissa primary school said she was happy that she would not be subjected to the act. "I am happy I will not face the same problem like some of my classmates who have since left school after the cut," she said.

The clerics say their campaign faces many challenges, including trying to change strong traditional beliefs that support FGM among the pastoralist communities in the region and inadequate resources that limit their movement between mosques.

Other anti-FGM campaigners say the religious leaders need to be supported in their work because they have saved many girls from the problems associated with it. "Many girls have missed learning, died or live in abject poverty because of FGM," said Sofia Abdi. "The religious leaders need to support the girls who have developed complications after the cut," she added. "Those girls should be assisted to receive medical help and can be asked to help in the campaign."

Widespread practice

FGM involves the cutting and/or removal of the clitoris and other vaginal tissue, often under unsanitary conditions. It is practised in at least 28 countries globally and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimates that up to 140 million girls and women around the world have undergone some form of FGM.

It is practised extensively in Africa, including in Kenya. But pressure from human-rights activists has so far compelled 16 African governments to legislate against FGM, in line with the 2005 Maputo Protocol, an African regional document that explicitly prohibits and condemns FGM.

Kenya has signed the protocol and banned the practice under the Children’s Act 2001, which protects girls from early marriage or forced FGM, and charges anyone found practising FGM. But observers say the law has proved extremely difficult to enforce.

Anti-FGM activists estimate that 32 percent of all women between the ages of 15 and 49 in more than half of Kenya’s districts have undergone FGM. The numbers are high among the Kisii ethnic group, the Maasai, Kalenjin, Taita/Taveta and the Meru/Embu.

The estimates are highest in northeastern Kenya, where up to 98 percent of women are believed to have undergone infibulation - the removal of part or all of the external genitalia and/or sewing together of the vaginal opening, leaving only a small outlet for urine and menstrual flow.

Health experts say complications arising from the practice are common because most procedures are performed without an anaesthetic, using rudimentary tools in unsanitary conditions. The risk of spreading HIV/AIDS is also high.

According to the UN World Health Organization (WHO), studies have shown that women who have undergone FGM are significantly more likely to experience difficulties during childbirth and that their babies are more likely to die as a result of the practice.

Apart from legislation, Kenyan authorities and NGOs are trying to raise public awareness through education campaigns and encouraging alternative rights of passage - a practice where communities maintain the rituals that lead adolescent girls to womanhood but exclude FGM.

See also Inter Parliamentary Union position

WHO classification of FGM
FGM I: Excision of the prepuce, with or without excision of part or all of the clitoris

FGM II: Excision of the clitoris with partial or total removal of the labia minora

FGM III: Excision of part or all of the external genitalia and stitching or narrowing of the vaginal opening (infibulation)