Human Rights

One Man Fights to Stop Female Circumcision in Northern Kenya

 

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Members of the Kamuthe Women Network display signs stating their opposition to female genital mutilation. Most women in the Garissa area in northeastern Kenya have undergone FGM. Lilian Kaivilu, GPJ Kenya
Kenya

Having seen an older sister suffer from the effects of female genital mutilation, Yusuf Mohammed began his own anti-FGM crusade. He’s had some success in turning people away from the practice, despite intense opposition from local elders.

GARISSA, KENYA — Yusuf Mohammed grew up in Garissa county, in Kenya’s northeastern region. Here, female genital mutilation, a practice that is outlawed in this country, is discussed in hushed tones, even though it is widely practiced among the Somalis and Kenyans of Somali descent who live here.

As a child, Mohammed watched his elder sister struggle with the effects of the mutilation, which is also known as FGM or female circumcision. She had undergone a procedure known as gutma firown, in which the outer parts of the female genitalia are chopped off and the vagina sewn up, leaving only a small passage for urine and menstrual blood. The community believes the practice enables girls to remain sexually pure until marriage.

“I was very close to her and I realized that she had a challenge when she started her menstruation,” Mohammed says. “She underwent a lot of pain.”

His sister stayed home from school during menstruation because of the pain.

“(My sister) would tell me how she hated herself whenever that time of the month came,” Mohammed says.

She eventually dropped out of school and got married.

Mohammed, now 32, resolved to fight female circumcision. After graduating from Kampala International University in Uganda in 2009, he returned to Garissa and started to campaign against female genital mutilation. He holds weekly meetings with local leaders and women’s groups, in which he educates them about the negative effects of female genital mutilation. His primary aim is to change the minds of community elders. If they abandon FGM, he says, the rest of the community will, too.

“I talk about FGM any moment I get, whether it’s with my brothers, with the elders, during or after my working hours,” says Mohammed, a program officer at ActionAid Kenya. “To me, it is more of a full-time job.”

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Yusuf Mohammed, far right, stands with elders in the Garissa area in northeastern Kenya. Mohammed works to convince elders that female genital mutilation should be stopped, but many of the elders say the practice should continue.

Lilian Kaivilu, GPJ Kenya

 

Female genital mutilation is a deeply rooted cultural practice among some communities in northern Kenya.

About 94 percent of Somali women, and women of Somali descent, in Kenya have undergone circumcision, according to the 2014 Kenya Demographic and Health Survey. That’s in comparison to 21 percent of all women in Kenya ages 15 to 49, according to that survey.

There has been a decline in the practice overall, but at least 200 million girls and women in 30 countries have undergone FGM or some form of cutting, according to UNICEF.

Besides being extremely painful, female circumcision poses many health risks to girls and women. These include painful periods as a result of obstruction of the vaginal opening, pain and bleeding during intercourse, childbirth complications and obstetric fistula among others, according to the World Health Organization. In some cases, women have to be cut open later to allow for sexual intercourse and childbirth.

For Mohammed, the fight to end FGM is urgent. He lives with his younger sister during school holidays because he is afraid that his mother, a strong supporter of FGM, might get the girl cut.

“My mother argues that if the girl is not cut, she is going to be a prostitute,” Mohammed says. “But I am glad that my brothers are supporting me in this. Our father has also joined us in protecting our last born sister from FGM.”

But it’s an uphill battle. The community’s elders oppose him in his job at ActionAid, where he works on programs aimed at protecting girls from FGM and early marriage, and in his own anti-FGM crusade. In 2013, he says he organized a meeting with 90 women and religious leaders in which he hoped to debunk the notion that the Quran advocates for FGM. Just before the meeting started, he says 11 elders walked in. They warned him to stop fighting to end FGM and told the women to leave, Mohammed says.

“I was alone against the community,” Mohammed says. “I felt that the elders had compromised my efforts to fight what I thought was a punishment to our women and girls.”

Elders acknowledge that they support FGM. The practice can’t end because many men wouldn’t marry someone who hasn’t been cut, says Hussein Ali, a cultural elder in the Kamuthe area of Garissa county. Abandoning the practice would mean abandoning a rich culture, he says.

“We still strongly believe in this culture,” Ali says. “If a man marries a girl and realises that she is not cut, she will be divorced and will not get anyone to marry her again.”

Girls who don’t want to undergo FGM should be forced, he says.

“To us, FGM is like religion. We cannot abandon it,” he says. “Even our women in other parts of the world bring their daughters back home for circumcision before they reach the age of 10.”

Lathan Barita, a traditional birth attendant who was once an FGM practitioner, says Mohammed has persuaded her to stop.

“I never saw anything wrong with it, even though I personally bled for two days after undergoing FGM,” she says. “I later learned about the dangers of the practice through the sessions that Yusuf and his team have been organizing in this area.”

Barita says she had cut about 50 girls by the time she stopped. She was paid between 200 Kenyan shillings ($2) and 500 shillings ($5) for each job. Girls are circumcised before the age of 7, she says.

“Today, I would not even take 2,000 shillings ($20) for the job,” Barita says.  “FGM is bad. It makes the girls have very painful menstruation. We have to stop it.”

Mohammed’s efforts are slowly paying off. Abdi Mohammed, the local government representative, says the number of local cases of FGM are reducing despite the opposition from the elders. People often tell him or local activists when a case occurs.

“Today, only three to four cases are reported in a season,” Abdi Mohammed says.

 

Some interviews were translated from Kiswahili and Somali.