The global response to FGC must start local

Maasai women S.A.F.E works with reject the term "genital mutilation" - and our experience shows how important it is to drive change from communities themselves

Related Topics

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.

Sarah Kennedy is Development Director of S.A.F.E., a Kenyan NGO and UK Charity that uses performing arts and community programmes to deliver social change. Find out more on @safe_kenya

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: You will also work alongside their seasoned sa...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Property Manager

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you looking for your first step into...

Recruitment Genius: Mechanical Design Engineer

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This innovative company working...

Recruitment Genius: Car Sales Executive - OTE £36,000

£12500 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This established Wakefield Deal...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Crofter's cottages on Lewis. The island's low population density makes it a good candidate for a spaceport (Alamy)  

My Scottish awakening, helped by horizontal sleet

Simon Kelner
The rocketing cost of remarking scripts coupled with the squeeze on school budgets has led to some schools charging parents for the cost of requesting exam boards to review marks, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers' annual conference in Liverpool heard.  

A teaching crisis we can’t afford

Louise Scodie
General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
11 best bedside tables

11 best bedside tables

It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

Italy vs England player ratings

Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

An underdog's tale of making the most of it

Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat