One day last year a young African man in my hearing scoffed at girls who flee Female Genital Mutilation rituals, calling them ‘babies’ and unable to face the same rites as the boys with courage and determination.


But the truth of the matter is there is no comparison between the removal of a foreskin, painful as it might be, and the cutting, slashing and stiching that form the girls’ rite of passage in many Kenyan communities.


Thirty eight of Kenya’s forty two tribes practice it. Fortunately for me, the tribe where I work in Western Province is one of the four who only perform the initiation rite for boys. The term ‘circumcision’ is a misnomer for girls. Female genital mutilation (FGM) is the term used to refer to the removal of part, or all, of the female genitalia. The most severe form is infibulation, also known as pharaonic circumcision. An estimated 15% of all mutilations in Africa are infibulations. The procedure consists of clitoridectomy (where all, or part of, the clitoris is removed), excision (removal of all, or part of, the labia minora), and cutting of the labia majora to create raw surfaces, which are then stitched or held together in order to form a cover over the vagina when they heal. A small hole is left to allow urine and menstrual blood to escape. In some less conventional forms of infibulation, less tissue is removed and a larger opening is left. The vast majority (85%) of genital mutilations performed in Africa consist of clitoridectomy or excision. The least radical procedure consists of the removal of the clitoral hood. Two million women each year (6,000 per day) and 38 % of women globally undergo this torture.


Amnesty International says: “The secrecy surrounding FGM, and the protection of those who carry it out, make collecting data about complications resulting from mutilation difficult. When problems do occur these are rarely attributed to the person who performed the mutilation. They are more likely to be blamed on the girl's alleged "promiscuity" or the fact that sacrifices or rituals were not carried out properly by the parents. Most information is collected retrospectively, often a long time after the event. This means that one has to rely on the accuracy of the woman's memory, her own assessment of the severity of any resulting complications, and her perception of whether any health problems were associated with mutilation.”

It is a complex problem, since many firmly believe a woman is ‘unclean’ without ‘the cut’. If she is spared, she cannot be married and she is shunned by her community. This is why it is a major step for a girl to flee her community, for she can never return home. Some organizations have tried to substitute other ceremonies and rituals to mark the passage into womanhood, but without great success. Many men equate it with male circumcision and  have no understanding of the pain and danger of the procedure, nor of the long lasting problems for basic functions and childbirth caused by the removal of the clitoris and labia and the crude stitching to leave one very small opening. In many communities an uncircumcised woman is a bad omen. They believe her husband and all her children will die. “No woman wants this to happen to her loved ones and [she] will opt for the procedure,” said a spokesperson.


The rite has no basis in religion and the cultural aspect of the procedure is in dispute. In some areas circumcision of girls was introduced long after the men’s had gone on for years. So does it serve a purpose of controlling a woman’s sexuality? I have read and heard comments from men stating that women would be uncontrolled sexual beings and rampantly promiscuous were it not for the ‘cut.’ After giving birth, women are often reinfibulated to make them "tight" for their husbands. The constant cutting and restitching of a women's genitals with each birth can result in tough scar tissue in the genital area.


In Kenya the Children’s Act in 2001 banned the practice for all girls under the age of 18, but as newspaper reports show, this has had but a small effect. In addition, the procedure, although  illegal, is often done in secret. Girls are often married almost immediately after the ritual, thus dropping out of school. Therefore the issue is also one of education for young women.


Many organisations are trying to support the government’s action to protect the ‘girl child’. Action Aid Kenya and a German organization have stepped up campaigns against the practice through alternative rites. World Vision Finland has extended funding to fight. In the West Pokot leaders of women’s groups resolved to unite and intensify the campaign against the circumcision of girls. This group of 90 women plan to step up education and mount aggressive campaigns


Unfortunately NGOs and churches which organize alternative rites of passage still find some girls being circumcised before or after the training.


Last year (2004) the newspaper Daily Nation covered the sad story of two Masai girls, aged fourteen and sixteen, who had been sheltered by their mother and had not undergone ‘the cut.’ Their eighteen-year-old brother wanted to marry them off to collect the bride price, abducted them and forcibly had them cut. They finished up in hospital with the doctors saying they had rarely seen such brutal mutilation and that the girls would require reconstructive surgery. The police were still looking for the brother.


Somali super model, Waris Dirie, was also in town for the International Conference on FGM in Nairobi in 2004. She was ‘circumcised’ as a child of five years and has spent her life since campaigning against and denouncing the ‘barbaric’ practice. Three of her female cousins died as a result of the procedure. She says: “Female circumcision is not a cultural, traditional or religious requirement, it is a front to subdue women. When I was told I would undergo the rite, they made it sound so glamorous that I enthusiastically looked forward to it, impatiently asking my mother when it would take place. But when it happened, it was so painful that it left a big, sick hole in my heart.”


Waris  ran from home at 12 when she realized her father wanted to marry her off to a 60 year-old man in return for five camels. She lived with an uncle who took her to London as a housemaid when he was appointed Somali ambassador. She was discovered by a photographer while she worked as a janitor at Macdonalds. In 1997 she was appointed UN Population Fund’s good will ambassador against female genital mutilation,


Fouzia, now 13,  spoke at the same conference. She was circumcised at age 8. “We (my sister and I)  were subjected to the Stone Age ritual prevalent in our Somali community. I saw the old lady with many blades doing it again & again. I screamed but my mum only ordered Quiet! The pain, horror and shock left an indelible mark.”

Despite such outspoken and well publicised reports the horror continues. A chief in the West Pokot was seriously injured when he tried to stop a secret ‘cut’ of twelve primary school girls. He was taken to hospital, but the girls escaped. For a while.


On the other hand, two district chiefs, whose role is surely to uphold the law,  were to appear in court on claims they forced their daughters to undergo circumcision. The girls were 16 and 17 and were circumcised despite the government ban. In this district men say they cannot marry women who have not gone through the rite. Some communities think that an uncircumsised woman is a lesser human being. Some MPs (members of Parliament) have even been found to uphold the practice to win votes in their constituencies


In a northern area some 23 girls fled their homes for fear of being circumcised. They walked at night for more than 50 kilometres to Kapsowar before a good Samaritan paid their bus fare to Eldoret. The journey on the bus to Eldoret was eight hours. The girls, aged between 12 and 16 years said preparations for the initiation, including the brewing of traditional beer, were complete. About 150 more were unable to walk to Kapsowar and sought refuge in a church seminary.


Circumcision of girls is widespread in Kisii district despite the government ban. The Nation newspaper found scores of circumcised girls recovering at various private hospitals. The health centres claim not to be able to turn parents away when they bring in their daughters. One spokeswoman claimed that the Children’s Act, which forbids the rite for children under 18, was misinterpreted. “What we have been warned against is carrying out the rite at home,” she said in a statement. Therefore the people had resorted to hospitals.


Usually the ‘cut’ happens during school holidays and involves a number of girls from the same family or of the same age. But some parents take their children during term to escape notice. In other areas, hospitals are cashing in. A girl is admitted for an supposed illness and then undergoes the cut.


Some object to the procedure being done in a hospital because it waters down the significance of the rite. They believe that shedding blood binds the initiate to her ancestors and admits her to the community’s secrets. In other places the training that goes with the cut to mark the transition between childhood and adulthood is considered most important. However, the circumcision age is coming down with Taita girls undergoing it at 8 days old. Again, from Amnesty International: “The procedure is carried out at a variety of ages, ranging from shortly after birth to some time during the first pregnancy, but most commonly occurs between the ages of four and eight. According to the World Health Organization, the average age is falling. This indicates that the practice is decreasingly associated with initiation into adulthood, and this is believed to be particularly the case in urban areas.”


Opponents are trying to convince communities that attach so much importance to blood accept it from another area such as the finger. What is certain is that efforts to eradicate female circumcision must provide practical alternatives that satisfy the deeper significance of the ritual in the minds of some.

On a political level the newspaper mentions the Matupo protocol which aims to notch the fight higher. Kenya has committed to ratify the agreement. It was adopted in Mozambique in 2003 by the heads of state at the African Union Summit. It is difficult to find specific reference to this issue on the AU web sites, although mention is made of the resolution to improve the lot of the African child ( Libya and Rwanda have already ratified. Fifteen  states must ratify for it to become law. Then women will enjoy the provisions which, apart from protection from circumcision, include the right to life, integrity & security of the person, rights to participate in politics and decision-making, inheritance, food security and adequate housing.


The Amnesty International website at has an excellent summary of the procedures, the physical, sexual and psychological effects of the mutilation.