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Female circumcision: Gusii perspective

Posted by Popular Ombudsman on November 8, 2009

December is only four weeks away and all over Gusii, both male and female “circumcisers and circumcisees” (for lack of better words) are getting ready for a cultural practice that has been the subject of heated debates in the recent past. However, while the males can walk into a Government hospital for the procedure, the females do not have an option but to do it clandestinely at home or in some hide-out. This is because under Kenyan law, female circumcision is now a criminal offense.

Never-the-less, come December, policemen, lawyers, clergy, teachers, nurses and everyone else will happily break this law while the chiefs and local leaders conveniently look the other way. The Abagusii’s resistance to the efforts of the Government and the so called “anti-FGM lobby”to discard the practice of female circumcision has earned the community the tag “conservative”. After all the negative descriptions that the practice has been given, it must puzzle many that the Abagusii are reluctant to discard this so called barbaric, archaic, backward, retrogressive, primitive, evil, demonic, satanic, inhumane and irrational practice. However, anyone versed on the community’s socio-cultural dynamics needs only casually observe the anti-FGM strategy to know why it is yet to record any significant progress.

In relative terms, the Abagusii are perhaps the community in which the poorest results have been achieved in the campaign against this rite. This however, is not to suggest that there has been absolutely no progress. Many of the more affluent and better educated families especially in urban areas have discarded the practice. To discern the reasons for the community’s resistance to the campaign, certain characteristics of the rite that are peculiar to the community must be understood. One also needs to look at the arguments of both sides objectively to decide if the community should indeed discard the practice and if so, what strategy would be most effective. I believe I am in a fairly good position – in three different respects – to provide an objective assessment, reach a suitable conclusion and make the necessary recommendations. I am a traditionalist Kisii man who believes that our cultural identity must be maintained as much as is practicable. On the other hand, I am educated and broad minded enough to know that when the suitability and usefulness of a cultural practice are overtaken by changes in the community’s socio-cultural environment, then it is time to discard such a practice. Thirdly, I have been involved in different initiatives geared towards ending the practice in Gusii for long enough to know where these initiatives get it all wrong.

I will begin with the traditionalist Kisii perspective to understand why the Abagusii have refused to discard the practice of female circumcision. First, “Female Genital Mutilation” is not an appropriate description of this rite in the case of the Abagusii. The nature of the female cut varies from one community to another. Among the Abagusii, all that is done is to cut part of the clitoris leaving all the other parts of the female genitalia intact. The medical term for this is “clitoridectomy” while the dictionaries describe it as “circumcision” and not “FGM”. The dictionary meaning of the word “mutilation” is “to maim”, “damage seriously” or “destroy completely” none of which applies to the nipping of part of the clitoris. The difference in terminologies already suggests there is a disconnect in perception between the community on the one hand and the anti-FGM campaign on the other. Beyond the nomenclature, the anti-FGM lobby should have involved such opinion shapers as the clergy, teachers and chiefs among others much more than it does for its campaign gain better acceptance and legitimacy in the rural areas.

Secondly, most of the reasons provided by the “anti-FGM” advocates for discarding the practice do not wash with the community. These reasons may be valid in the case of other communities but do not apply in Gusii. An example is the assertion that it leads to girls dropping out of school. The timing and nature of the cut among the Abagusii allow the girls to heal well enough to get back to school in January. It is performed once a year during the school holidays at the beginning of the month of December. In my entire life, I am yet to hear of a case of a girl in Gusii who quit school just because she’d been circumcised. Another reason provided is that it leads to early marriage. I am also yet to hear of a case of early marriage related to the practice among the Abagusii. In our community, the cut does not turn a child into a woman. It is always clear to the girl, her parents and the entire community that marriage will come many years after the cut, when the girl is physically and biologically ready for motherhood.

Another fallacy – in the case of Gusii – is that after the cut, the girl feels “woman enough” to engage in sex. What nonsense! If anything, the opposite is the case. The cut makes her chaste. This rite is considered essential among the Abagusii not just as a rite of passage but also as a means to delay the sexual debut of teenage girls. This is a fact endorsed by no less a publication than the Ministry of Health’s journal on AIDS in Kenya. It is widely believed within the community that the fact that its women are some of the least promiscuous in Kenya is attributable to this fact. Another aspect of the cut that most of us only read about in the press is that in some communities, girls are forced by their families to undergo the cut. In Gusii however, most of the girls are themselves eager and willing to go for the cut because the social set-up is such that it enhances her social standing. The “anti-FGM” campaign is therefore viewed by the Abagusii as an unwarranted assault on their culture and the government’s decision to criminalize the rite only succeeded in driving it underground.

The medical reasons provided are even more ridiculous and all sound like excuses. Sample these : severe pain, shock, infection, bleeding, acute urinary infection, tetanus, and death, difficulties with urination and menstruation, pelvic infection leading to infertility, and prolonged and obstructed labor during childbirth. Most of these can result from any surgical procedure – including male circumcision – if it is not done properly. Criminalizing and banning female circumcision based on these is akin to banning the use of taxis because there are road accidents. If it is indeed true that, cutting a piece of a woman’s clitoris has such severe effects, then for a community in which for centuries, every girl – without exception – has undergone the cut, wouldn’t the cut have had an impact on the reproductive health of our women? Wouldn’t these very serious effects be reflected in the records of the local health facilities? Wouldn’t these facilities be recording an overwhelming number of cases of infertility among other complications or even deaths caused by the cut when compared to the facilities in the neighbouring communities that do not practice circumcision? One need not be a gynaecologist to know that nipping part of a girl’s clitoris cannot cause difficulties with urination and menstruation, or even pelvic infection.

On the other hand though, we must appreciate the fact that the “anti-FGM campaign” does have one or two valid points that would be difficult to ignore. One of the two reasons I believe our community should stop the practice of female circumcision is because in some cases it indeed does cause some problems during labour. Though to a much smaller extent in comparison with the way some of the other communities do it, cutting part of the clitoris does affect the overall elasticity of a woman’s genitalia. This elasticity is crucial in ensuring that all parts through which the newborn passes can stretch as much as necessary without breaking. Any human body part that tears and heals loses such elasticity and it becomes a bit – for lack of a better word – brittle. In the case of clitoridectomy the effect is not as serious as say the Somali way of doing it whereby the entire outer labia is curved off and whatever remains is sewn together leaving a small vent for passing urine, but it never the less affects the elasticity of the opening. That is the only valid medical reason – and a good one at that – why we should discard the practice.

The other reason – which the anti FGM lobby never cites – is the fact that the cut is no longer the only, or the best means of taming our teenage girls’ raging hormones. In the days of our parents and grandparents, it may have made sense to rely on female circumcision to prevent unwanted pregnancies and the spread of STDs but in the 21st century, if we tried to rely on it, we’d have as much control over their sex lives as we would over rain. In other words, it can no longer serve the purpose that it used to serve. One of the most memorable lessons I learnt in my sociology classes at university was that culture is dynamic and changes in step with changes in the social, political and economic environments within which it is practiced. The female cut played an extremely important role “kitambo”, not any more, i am afraid. Consequently, it must be discarded the same way the Luo discarded the practice of knocking off six of every man’s most visible teeth.

The anti-FGM campaign – in spite of its noble intentions – has always had its strategy in Gusii wrong. I remember the first time I noticed this was when I attended an “anti-FGM” workshop in Kisii a couple of years ago. I sat there bemused as a local girl who was a student at the University of Nairobi and a member of the NGO that had organized the workshop read out – almost mechanically – a list of the negative effects of the cut. I was left wondering if the girl or the one who prepared her notes had any clue that only one or two of the more than ten reasons she had “recited” had any relevance to the case of the Abagusii. I was horrified later when the government passed legislation – with a little nudging from the West no doubt – that criminalized the rite and hence handing a practice that was already beginning to peter out a life line. With the practice now effectively driven underground it is going to take a hell of a long time to convince the community to completely discard it. Social engineering geared towards this end would have been the wiser strategy. While it was legal and public, it was possible to not only monitor its prevalence and trends but also to convince many more people through persuasion and incentives.

A clear illustration of how unwise the move to criminalise the practice is, can be provided by the case of the Luo community’s practice of knocking off six front teeth. Because with time, the practice lost relevance, it slowly died a natural death even without legislating against it or launching a campaign. Had the government criminalized it and had it – together with NGOs – launched a campaign called the “anti Male Oral Mutilation”, we’d still be seeing many toothless Luo boys and one could still pick a Luo from a crowd through his “distinctly Luo look”. The “anti-MOM” campaign would have it much easier than the “anti-FGM” campaign because the evidence would be written all over the mouth of the boy or man and so even if it were to go underground, the “culprits” could still be nabbed. This is however not the case with the “anti-FGM” campaign because now female circumcision is a private procedure carried out privately on a private part of the body. This is a law that even the CIA and the FBI – let alone Kenyan Police – can never ensure the citizens adhere to.

Geoffrey O. Nyakundi


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