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Education and awareness make progress against female genital cutting in Kenya

© UNICEF/HQ04-0335/Furrer
A schoolgirl at Ruthimitu Primary School in Nairobi, Kenya. Increasing girls’ access to education is a key strategy to help end female genital mutilation, because educated women are less likely to allow their daughters to be cut.

By Malini Morzaria and Zeinab Ahmed

NAIROBI, Kenya, 24 August 2006 – In the North Eastern Province of Kenya, UNICEF is helping communities abandon the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM), or cutting, which is still inflicted upon the vast majority of girls in the province.

While FGM is not as prevalent in the rest of the country, a 2003 nationwide survey revealed that almost a third of Kenyan women aged 15 to 49 had undergone genital mutilation. But the same survey also showed a 30 per cent reduction in the practice.

The reduction is largely due to increased education, female economic empowerment and the introduction of so-called ‘alternative rites of passage’ – which replace FGM with rituals that retain the cultural significance of a coming-of-age ceremony without physically harming the young women involved.

Increasing the pressure

Despite the overall decline in the practice across Kenya, FGM is still carried out in 60 of the country’s 75 districts. Some 99 per cent of girls who are ‘cut’ undergo infibulation, the most radical and severe form of cutting.

A UNICEF study conducted in Garissa and Myale in 2004 found that about 60 per cent of FGM practitioners felt increasing pressure to abandon the rite. Almost half said religious leaders provided the strongest impetus to abandon the practice, while 40 per cent cited an increased awareness of girls’ rights.

Only about 1 in 10 practitioners said the strongest motive for stopping the tradition was a greater understanding of its adverse effects on girls and women.

UNICEF and the Population Council, an international non-governmental organization, are training health service providers in Kenya to promote safer maternal health and provide increased psychosocial support for women affected by FGM.

Education is key

Increasing access to education is another key strategy because educated women are less likely to allow their daughters to be cut. In North Eastern Province, less than 20 per cent of girls are ever enrolled in school.

To help address this problem, UNICEF is working with the Ministry of Education and the Office of the President to increase access to education through support for mobile schools, boarding schools, improved water and sanitation facilities in schools and better-quality teaching in child-centred, girl-friendly classrooms.

Around the province, communities are being encouraged to openly discuss the dangers of FGM and promote child rights. As a result, even in conservative communities, people are talking about the practice and its adverse effects.

Help from religious leaders

The power of community pressure is illustrated by the case of Isnino Shuria, 80, a former practitioner of FGM who learned the rite from her mother.

“My mother died when I was 17, and I took over her practice,” says Ms. Shuria, who continued ‘cutting’ until eight years ago, when a group of women visited her with religious leaders who said FGM violated Islamic values. “I did not listen at first,” she recalls, “but after their third visit I stopped and realized what I was doing.”

The community women raised funds so that Ms. Shuria and others in her position could buy livestock to support themselves and make up for their loss of income.

“There are about 25 of us now,” says Ms. Shuria. “I deliver babies and massage mothers who have problem pregnancies – it is much better. I have many well-wishers who help me and my family.”



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