Yesterday, Lynne Featherstone MP announced that the government will invest £35 million in ending female circumcision (FGC) - a momentous step towards eliminating this harmful cultural practice that affects approximately 100–140 million girls and women worldwide.
As a Kenyan NGO that has been working to end FGC over the last 6 years, we welcome this investment and the renewed attention it will give to ending female circumcision across the world. Yet now is the time to remember and reiterate what we already know: that lasting change has to originate from within the communities that practice female circumcision. This investment has the potential to highlight, strengthen and scale-up the projects that are already working so effectively to end FGC, but it will not deliver lasting change unless communities themselves own and implement the abandonment process.
An estimated 92 million girls in Africa have undergone FGC and UNICEF estimates that 27 per cent of Kenyan girls are circumcised between the ages of 10-18 years. Yet, despite its illegality in Kenya, female circumcision is an entrenched and complex issue because of the benefits girls experience when they are circumcised.
This is nowhere more evident than in the intensely patriarchal and conservative Maasai culture, where FGC is an essential part of a girl’s life. 90 per cent of Maasai girls are circumcised, which subjects the girls to life-long physical and psycho-social trauma: it can cause death at the time of circumcision, it increases the risk of maternal and foetal death and fatal infection, and it renders sex incredibly painful.
Yet a Maasai woman’s status and survival are dependent upon her being married and she is not eligible for marriage before she is circumcised, so FGC remains central to the Maasai way of life and extremely difficult to challenge or abandon as a cultural norm.
Evidence from throughout FGM-practising Africa indicates that legislation alone cannot end the practice. Penalties for FGC vary widely in enforcement and many communities continue to circumcise girls despite or in ignorance of the law. Laws like Kenya’s Children Act (prohibiting FGC) have little effect on the custom amongst indigenous communities where members fear cultural exclusion more than prosecution. Projects designed to help girls escape FGC do not offer a lasting solution to the practice as they destabilise the strong community bonds that could catalyse sustainable change.
S.A.F.E. works towards the abandonment of FGC in the Loita Hills Maasai community on the border with Tanzania, where our team is entirely comprised of young Maasai men and women who have the respect, trust and familiarity of the community. Their status gives credibility to the alternative practices they promote whilst still protecting the integrity of Masaai culture. And the desire for change is an indigenous one: the programme was initiated by S.A.F.E.’s female Project Manager, who has lived her whole life in Loita and, since her own circumcision at the age of 13, has been quietly committed to bringing an end to the practice.
Acknowledging the dangers and damage of FGC to girls and women, yet also understanding its cultural necessity for the Maasai, they are able to work closely with the whole community to push collective abandonment of the practice in this remote rural region. By using culturally sensitive messages and communication techniques - coupled with in-depth community outreach, education and training - the whole community are empowered to engage openly and honestly on the sensitive issue of FGC.
S.A.F.E.’s FGC abandonment programme is one project in one community, but it is an example of a model that we see all over FGC-practising Africa. Those like us trying to end FGC understand that to achieve a mass attitudinal and cultural shift - and global abandonment of FGC - requires the voices of local people who, in their respected positions in the community, are permitted to challenge the traditional beliefs and social norms that perpetuate FGC.
Only they are able to ensure their community abandons this practice; only they can increase the social acceptability of abandonment; only they can create culturally-acceptable and lasting change that protects the girls’ position in the community as well as their physical and mental health.
We hope this new investment of much needed funding recognises, respects and builds upon this understanding of why the global response to FGC must start local.